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Transcript: Vladimir Putin

On May 8, 2005, 60 Minutes broadcast an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The correspondent was Mike Wallace.

Here are excerpts from that interview. Because President Putin spoke with Wallace in Russian, all of his answers, as represented in this transcript, are translations. This transcript has been edited, but the order of the questions has not been altered.

The interview begins with Mr. Putin and Mr. Wallace looking at photographs. Mr. Wallace asks Mr. Putin how he met his wife, Ludmilla.

MIKE WALLACE: Please tell the story.

PRES. PUTIN'S TRANSLATOR: Well, we met each other in a theater. We were sitting next to each other. Our seats were close. When we started our relationship, she lived in another city. She was in Kaliningrad.

WALLACE: And she used to fly to have a date with you?

TRANSLATOR: Yes. Well, she was a stewardess, so she was able to fly to Leningrad so that we could be together.

WALLACE: Your daughters, Katya and Masha, they're 19 and 20 now?

TRANSLATOR: Well, one of them just celebrated her 20th birthday, and the other is 19. They're a year and four months apart.

WALLACE: And one of them wants to be a manager. And the other wants to be a furniture designer or interior decorator?

TRANSLATOR: Well, they have not decided yet. But this is what they're moving toward.

WALLACE: You didn't want a boy?

TRANSLATOR: Well, I believe everything is right that God has given us. And the most important thing is for them to be healthy and happy.

WALLACE: God? You are a religious man?

TRANSLATOR: Well, I believe that every person must have faith in their heart. This is very important – your inner world, the condition of your soul.

WALLACE: Is that what brought you and George W. Bush together at the beginning? Your feeling about some spirit?

TRANSLATOR: Probably. That mutual feeling appeared during our first meeting.

WALLACE: When he looked into your eyes and saw your soul, what about you? Did you see his?

TRANSLATOR: Well, he impressed me as a reliable person, consistent in his actions.

WALLACE: And you still feel that way?

TRANSLATOR: Well, yes, I still do. You know that we have different opinions on some things, but my first impression of him was correct: he is truly a reliable person who does what he says he will do.

WALLACE: But you disagreed with him when he went into Iraq. You thought it was a bad idea.

TRANSLATOR: Well, I thought it was a mistake and I told him so. We openly and freely talked about that, and other things. But he is the President of the United States of America, and he's the one who makes the decisions.

WALLACE: And he was not upset that you thought it was a bad idea to go in?

TRANSLATOR: Well, I told him that he made a wrong decision, and I told him why I thought that.

WALLACE: Why a mistake?

TRANSLATOR: And this is exactly what I think now.

WALLACE: What-- what--

TRANSLATOR: Well, for a number of reasons. The most important is that democracy cannot be exported to other places. Democracy must be a product of internal domestic development in a society. The second point is that in order to create democratic world order, it is important to comply with international law. Also, it hadn't been confirmed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But the decision was made to go to war, and there's no need to go back over this point that had divided us. Strange as it might sound to you, while I don't agree with his decision, I defend and protect it.

WALLACE: How do you mean protect it?

TRANSLATOR: I'll clarify. We all had suspicions that Saddam could possess weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, we also knew that during the wars with Iraq and Iran it was confirmed that Saddam Hussein possessed these weapons. That's why we can't say that the president of the United States had no reason to think that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. There were grounds for his thinking so.

But our differences were over how to solve the situation. We thought the solution should be handled by the international community and through peaceful means. We thought this would be a more constructive solution. But again, I don't think it's necessary to go back over these differences. Right now we have other challenges in Iraq.

The Russian Federation, together with the United States, needs to help the Iraqi people, since we traditionally have had good and friendly relations with our Iraqi partners. Our specialists and our experts are involved in civilian projects in Iraq, such as electricity. This will help the country's economy recover. It's important to provide Iraqis with an opportunity to find, as soon as possible, a balanced solution so that all religious and ethnic groups can share power in the government. And we need to determine when it would be appropriate to remove foreign troops, because we believe that without that, there can be no final settlement.

WALLACE: And how long is that going to take for the United States? A guess? A speculation?

TRANSLATOR: Well, this is a tough question.

WALLACE: Of course.

TRANSLATOR: A complex one. I thought the military action itself was a mistake. But if the U.S. were to leave now and abandon Iraq without establishing the grounds for a united country, that would definitely be a second mistake.

WALLACE: Do you think there was sufficient planning on the part of the United States for post-war reconstruction?

TRANSLATOR: Well, I see that there are some positive changes going on. Elections have taken place there. Attempts have been made to create a balanced political leadership in the country, and we think that those are positive signs. Only time will tell whether the steps that have been taken are the right ones. In any case, both on the international level and within our bilateral context with the United States and Iraq, we will help find a way to help the Iraqi people. Wallace and Putin discuss a sport that the Russian president excels at: Judo.

WALLACE: Judo. It is not just a sport; it is a philosophy, you say. What does that mean?

TRANSLATOR:First of all, sports like judo teach us about relationships between people, and teach you to respect your partner. It also teaches us that a seemingly weak partner can not only resist you, but also beat you. It's not only strength that can change the result of a match. It's also the ability to think and to use the right stance. This is very important. What is very important is to have a strong character and a strong desire for victory.

WALLACE: And you have both.

TRANSLATOR: Well, we are not talking about me; we are speaking about this sport.

WALLACE: Yes, we are. Now you became a judo champion at a very young age. How come?

TRANSLATOR: I was champion of my city. It was quite a big city with a population of 5 million.

WALLACE: St. Petersburg.

TRANSLATOR: The City of Leningrad. Yes, absolutely right. I worked hard at this sport. I think that if you do something, you should do it not only for the pleasure of the process, but you should be results-oriented.

Wallace and Putin discuss the president's daughters, ages 19 and 20, who stay out of the public light.

TRANSLATOR: I am pleased that they aren't seen on TV or in magazines.

WALLACE: Because?

TRANSLATOR: Because this is their choice. Several years ago I had a talk with them, and I told them that they can be well-known, and not have a normal life with their friends, or they can choose to be modest and not famous, and thereby have a normal life. They chose the second option.

Wallace and President Putin are looking at a photograph of Putin as a young man.

WALLACE: This fellow, how old were you here?

TRANSLATOR: I think about 14.

WALLACE: You were a very serious young man.

TRANSLATOR: Not always.

WALLACE: Oh! A bad boy from time to time?

TRANSLATOR: Well, I was born into a family of workers. My father and my mother were just ordinary people. We lived in a small room, all three of us, in a communal apartment in Leningrad with no private facilities. 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. And it was just a normal and ordinary life.

WALLACE: Yes, but you were chasing rats with a stick?

TRANSLATOR: Yeah, and I made a very interesting discovery: If you corner a rat, it turns on you and attacks you.


TRANSLATOR: And a rat attacks aggressively. It even chases its adversary when they run away.

WALLACE: How big? How big? The ones that you were chasing?

TRANSLATOR: Well, it just was a normal city rat.


TRANSLATOR: I think such large rats as you have shown can only be found in the United States, because they have much better food there. I think that's why they can grow that large. We don't have such big ones here.

WALLACE: Now this is a picture of Putin when he's determined. Or maybe even angry. Yes?

TRANSLATOR: Well, I can't remember where this picture was taken.

WALLACE: It doesn't say.

TRANSLATOR: I think that some of my character can be seen in this photo.

WALLACE: Yes, he's a tough guy. He can be angered. He loses his temper.

TRANSLATOR: No. I don't remember one time in my five years as president of the Russian Federation that I lost my temper. I think that this is absolutely unacceptable.

WALLACE: Really?

TRANSLATOR: Definitely. You have to be tough and consistent in your actions. It is important to take responsibility, and not hide behind the back of your government, of your law enforcement agencies, or of your armed forces. That's what is important.

And it is also very important to find the right people for the job. This is definitely the most difficult task for leaders. Being tough is not the most difficult task for a person who has the position I do. It is probably more difficult to be patient and forgiving.

WALLACE: It is more difficult?

TRANSLATOR: Well, I think that in the position that I have, it is easier to be tough or harsh.

WALLACE: Well, that's your reputation.


TRANSLATOR: I think that, to a certain extent, some of this might be true. I have already told you that without being tough it is impossible to be a head of a state.

WALLACE: Yes. This is the final picture that I'm going to be bothering you with. This is a picture which with this line under it, "A few seconds later, Boris Nikolayevich turned to me and said, 'Take care of Russia.'" And if you take a good look at your face in this picture, you look as though either you're overwhelmed or unhappy or worried about --

TRANSLATOR: Definitely. This picture was taken after the decision was made about my running for president. And all the thoughts you have mentioned [are true]. When President Yeltsin suggested that I run for president of the Russian Federation, I told him that I was not prepared because this, in my view, was a very difficult, complex fate, and I had never thought about becoming president.

But President Yeltsin was persistent. He said that the issue wasn't over, and that we'd talk about it again. And finally the decision was made to participate in the elections, and this picture is after the election, after I was sworn in as president. I've given my oath. President Yeltsin knew at what stage the country was in its development. As he was leaving the Kremlin, he spoke sincerely and from his heart. He was thinking about the future of the country, and he was convinced that he was giving the country over to reliable hands.

WALLACE: It's astonishing how quickly you rose. Why did you want to go to the KGB in the first place? And what did they say when you presented yourself to the KGB office?

TRANSLATOR: Well, that was a different life, a different country. Everything that is now said about the KGB is about the bad times – the repression by Stalin, for example – but the KGB has done a lot to protect the interests of the country, for example during and after the war. So it's no surprise that many young people of my generation were proud to be a part of it.

I worked in the foreign service, in which people largely work abroad. Thus they had some other views, some liberal views, if we can speak about liberalism within this group of people in the security forces. They could see how they lived in the West, the state of affairs in the West and in the Soviet Union. After leaving the KGB, President Putin tells Wallace, he began his political career in St. Petersburg's local government. Within 10 years, he was president. Putin tells Wallace that it was the political changes in the country that allowed him to ascend so quickly.

TRANSLATOR: Such changes, such metamorphosis is only possible in the revolutionary period of development. At that time, there was in-fighting among the elite. They were battling for power and property, and thus destroyed themselves as the ruling elite. As a result, there was a deficit, a lack of people who were prepared to assume responsibility for the development of the country. President Yeltsin understood that, and my work for him for three years convinced him that I was a good choice. That was how the situation evolved and how it was at the end of the 1999 in the beginning of the year of 2000.

Wallace and President Putin discuss journalism in Russia.

WALLACE: In order to be a journalist today in Russia, do you have to, in effect, bow the head and bend the knee?

TRANSLATOR: Well, I'll give to you some figures, and then you will be able to decide whether you have to bend your knee if you want to work in mass media. In Russia there are 3,200 TV and radio companies registered and working in Russia.

WALLACE: 3,200—

TRANSLATOR: Yes. 3,200 TV and radio companies, and only ten percent of them are state companies. In Russia there are 46,000 newspapers and magazines. Even if the authorities at the federal or the regional level wanted to control all this mass media, it would be simply and practically impossible. So the gossip about the control is as exaggerated as the gossip about the death of Mark Twain, as he used to say.

WALLACE: There are varying views in newspapers, radio stations, cable et cetera, but the fact is that there are three major national TV channels, right?

TRANSLATOR: No, it would be incorrect to say so.


TRANSLATOR: There are more of them. Many more of them. At the national level there are at least five to six broadcasting companies.

WALLACE: I am told that there are three major TV news channels and that they are controlled by you. All three are run by the state. One channel even begins each newscast with, "What did Putin do today? Who did he see?" And so forth and so forth. Correct? Your people run these news channels and the opposition has no news channels, if there is indeed opposition to you.

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


TRANSLATOR: Everywhere, including the streets. Have you seen the way we are celebrating the May 1st holiday? The opposition can speak out through the 3,200 radio and TV stations, as well as through the 46,000 newspapers and magazines in Russia.

Putin says that the challenges faced by the media in Russia aren't unlike those in the United States.

TRANSLATOR: The relationship between society and the media is characterized by certain tension, because the media is tasked to look into problems in society and show these problems to the society. Let us recollect, for instance, the situation in other countries. For instance, in the United States, there was a controversy involving the coverage of the war in Iraq. Haven't we seen resignations of leading American journalists from national mass media during the Iraqi war due to their positions on Iraq. So -

WALLACE: Wait, wait, wait. What are you saying? What are you saying, Mr. President? Journalists resigning because what?

TRANSLATOR: Don't you know that some of the journalists were fired because of their views on Iraq or the presidential campaign? The relations between the mass media and the state is not a problem unique to Russia. This is in other countries as well.

If we want to provide for independent mass media, and it is exactly what we want to do, it is necessary to provide an environment for financial independence for the mass media, so that it will be independent from both the state and the large, as we call them, oligarch groupings. And we definitely will be working in order to establish such financial and legislative conditions for the independence of the mass media.

Wallace returns to the earlier issue about some American journalists who, Putin believes, lost their jobs due to their coverage of the war in Iraq.

WALLACE: Were you talking about Dan Rather?


TRANSLATOR: Yes, exactly.

WALLACE: He still works for CBS News.

TRANSLATOR: On our TV screens, we saw him resigning. We understand that he had to resign by your bosses at CBS. This is the problem of your democracy, not of ours.

WALLACE: Well, he is not resigned. He continues to work, as a matter of fact, on 60 Minutes.

Wallace and President Putin discuss democracy in Russia.

WALLACE: Is Russia a democracy?

TRANSLATOR: Russia is a democracy beyond any doubt. It is a state that has gotten rid of the conditions under which it was run for 80 years, when one political force was dominant and had a monopoly on power. Russia has now turned into an absolutely different condition. In our country, democratic institutions are strengthening.

It is beyond doubt that the people have chosen democracy; that we have established the institutions of democracy; and that the philosophy of democracy has a place in people's minds. We have a multi-party system that is weak so far and it needs strengthening. We have very important elections, democratic elections to the representative body, which is the parliament. And the head of state is democratically elected.

The head of state serves for four years, two times running. We have certain difficulties, but we have an independent, I underscore, an independent judicial system developing. We have not only established the system, but also have provided for the separation of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. And this is going on within the development of the democratic institutions of a civil society. Definitely these are, beyond doubt, the signs of a democratic society. So there can be no doubt that Russia is a democratic country and democratic society. WALLACE: There was a time when the regional governors were elected, correct?

TRANSLATOR: Absolutely right.

WALLACE: Then all of a sudden, Putin says, "No, no, no. I shall appoint the governors." That's democracy? That's democracy? That's not democracy the way I understand it. Now maybe I'm just dead wrong.

TRANSLATOR: Well, you're absolutely wrong. And know you are. For instance, India is called the largest world democracy. But their governors have always been appointed by the central government, and nobody disputes that India is the largest democracy.

WALLACE: But then why did you change from electing your governors to appointing your governors?

TRANSLATOR: Well, if you are patient I will clarify everything for you. I promised you an open and frank talk, and I'm prepared to follow my promise. The principle of appointing regional leaders is not a sign of a lack of democracy. I have not proposed that heads of regions should be appointed. And they're not appointed.

WALLACE: Are they elected?

TRANSLATOR: The president of the country proposes a candidate, and the local parliament votes for this candidate, or votes against this candidate. This is a system of electorates. I would like to underscore that members of a local parliament -- who act as of electors in this context -- are elected through direct and secret votes by the population. I would like to note also that election of a leader through the system of electors is used in the United States, for instance when electing the presidents of the United States. And this is not understood as some un-democratic procedure.

WALLACE: Are you suggesting the president of the United States is not elected by the people of the United States?

TRANSLATOR: In Russia, the president of the Russian Federation is elected through the direct vote of the whole population of the country. In United States you first elect the electors, and then the electors vote for the presidential candidates. So in essence, it is exactly what we are doing with regards to bringing of governors in the Russian Federation to power.

Such a system, when used in the United States, is thought to be democratic. But in Russia, practically the same system on the regional level is questioned by someone as a non-democratic one.

The election of the president of a country through a direct secret vote of the whole population might be even more democratic. But as far I know, nobody's going to change this system in the United States. Moreover, there are some other issues. You faced this problem just four years ago.

WALLACE: And that was?

TRANSLATOR: Four years ago, your presidential election was decided by a court, which means that the electoral system was not efficient, not effective. As a result, the judicial system was brought into the game. So this means there are some contradictions, some disruptions in the system, but we are not going to poke our nose into your democratic system, because it's up to the American people to say what is good or what is not. So there are problems everywhere.

WALLACE: Let me read you a piece from the Moscow Times back in January 25th. "Putin expresses his shame for Russia." The dateline is Krakow, Poland. "As world leaders and death camp survivors mourn victims of the Holocaust for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Thursday that anti-Semitism had surfaced in Russia, testing an issue that the Kremlin had long failed to confront directly." I know that you are on the record in a very straightforward, honest and decent way about your feeling that the Holocaust was inexcusable, a horror.


WALLACE: -- and that your feeling about Jews simply human and straightforward and decent. Why all of a sudden do you acknowledge that there is anti-Semitism in Russia? Why? Is there?

TRANSLATOR: Well, in speaking about my speech in Krakow--

WALLACE: Yes. [Reading . . .] "Even in our country, in our Russia, which did more than any to combat Fascism, for the victory over Fascism, which did most to save the Jewish people, even in our country we sometimes unfortunately see manifestations of anti-Semitism. And I too am ashamed of that."

TRANSLATOR: That's absolutely true. Well, I said that even in our country, most unfortunately, we see signs of Neo-Nazism, of extremism, of anti-Semitism. It is especially shameful for the country that has done so much to counter Nazism. When I was last in Israel, at the Holocaust Museum – and I was there three times.

WALLACE: Yad Vashem?

TRANSLATOR: Yes. Last time I was there, paying an official visit to Israel, I went to the new museum there. You are simply unable to look at all that is shown there without tears in your eye. The Holocaust was a huge, gigantic tragedy of the Jewish people, and we should not forget how many gypsies suffered, how many Slavic people suffered. How many other people suffered. When in modern Russia we come across Nazism, we definitely are ashamed of that. For us, this is a special evil, because Russia is a multi-ethnic and multi-national country with many religions, and if we let anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, national intolerance, and chauvinism grow, that is bad for the country.

WALLACE: There is something that needs to be discussed in this context, Mr. President. The oligarchs. How were they able to snap up Russia's wealth -- natural resources, oil, coal, power, industry -- at such bargain prices? How were they able to do that?

TRANSLATOR: First of all, I should say that there was a definite danger that the country would move along the oligarchic way. That's why it has been the responsibility of the state to rebuild its institutions and make them operate more efficiently. In this way, the country's natural resources and the market economy can be used to benefit the state and the people.

WALLACE: The fact of the matter is, Mr. President, that Boris Yeltsin made it possible for his friends, the oligarchs, to get a leg up on buying Russia's natural resources, in return for which they helped him in his last election campaign. It was a quid pro quo. Right?

TRANSLATOR: That's oversimplifying it. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we faced economic problems and the collapse of the social security system. We faced terrorism and practically civil war. Under such conditions, the state, of course, was not able to execute its obligations to the people. The real representative bodies of power were only developing. Police, courts law enforcement entities were discredited because they were considered to be the legacy of the Soviet system.

WALLACE: You know something, you, you are –

TRANSLATOR: I'm going to tell you everything. Just a bit of patience.

WALLACE: I'll be absolutely patient. The fact of the matter is that they were able to buy up Russia's power, national resources, industry, the oligarchs were.

TRANSLATOR: Yes, they managed to do it. I'm trying to clarify why.

WALLACE: It had nothing to do with Boris Yeltsin?

TRANSLATOR: They took advantage of the weakness of the state institutions for their own benefit.

WALLACE: Who made all of --

TRANSLATOR: Oh, let me finish. Otherwise, we'll have no dialogue.


TRANSLATOR: They managed to formulate conditions in the state market economy that allowed them to capture those national resources.

WALLACE: At bargain prices?

TRANSLATOR: Absolutely true. How did they manage to do so? They took advantage of the weakness in the state by using their money to buy influence in the legislature, the judicial system, and the mass media.

WALLACE: Corruption?

TRANSLATOR: Yes. That is corruption, but I should tell you that not all of the Russian market economy consists of oligarchs.

WALLACE: No, of course not.

interview with Vladimir Putin.

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