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Interview with Der Spiegel

November 7, 2009, Gorki, Moscow Region

Der Spiegel: Mr President, today, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall fall. You are going to celebrate this event along with the other guests in Berlin. Where were you on that very day twenty years ago? What memories do you have of it?

Dmitry Medvedev: Time has been running very fast. Twenty years later, everything that happened in Eastern Europe and everything related to the unification of Germany and the fall of Berlin Wall has become history already. I do not remember where I was on that day. But I perfectly remember that I had a very intense feeling that our life was changing momentarily. I was a grown up person already, I was doing my postgraduate studies in the St Petersburg University then, and I understood that the changes of that kind were not only the changes concerning all Germans but also changes that were having impact on the destiny of Europe, and, ultimately, on the destiny of our country.

The Berlin Wall had always been the symbol of the divided Europe, of the division between two civilizations, division of values. And its fall was perceived as a continuation of the policy towards unification of Europe. Obviously, there are certain emotional components to that. At least, many people associate that time with the famous Wind of Change song, which actually was written at that period and which became an anthem to that period.

There has been a long time since those events. Some hopes that I had then, and I guess, other citizens of the country also had them, came true, some hopes did not. What matters most is that the dividing lines were removed, and ultimately the unification of Europe took place.

On the other hand, in my view a lot of developments linked to the destiny of Europe and relations between the Russian Federation and European countries could have followed a bit different scenario.

Der Spiegel: In my country, in Germany, as well as in the West as a whole, Mikhail Gorbachev is a respected person. He is admired for his achievements associated with the end of the Cold War. What is your assessment of the historic role of Mikhail Gorbachev?

Dmitry Medvedev: I believe it would not be quite appropriate for me to assess my predecessors. Mikhail Gorbachev is a positive figure for the Federal Republic of Germany. In many European countries, he is perceived as a man who did a lot for unifying Europe, overcoming the consequences of the Cold War, and removing the Iron Curtain.

In our country, there can be differing opinions of his activity, because the time of his leadership coincided with the breakup of our state and a considerable portion of our people associate the demise of our country with his activities. Whether it is right or not, this is a question for historians. The fact is that many people at that time had a subjective feeling of being hurt, damaged, of having lost their country.

Der Spiegel: Your predecessor Vladimir Putin is less reserved. He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Do you share this view?

Dmitry Medvedev: Vladimir Putin has not appraised Mr Gorbachev, so in this sense he has been as reserved as me.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union was really a very big shock for all the people who lived within the territory of the former USSR. There is no doubt about it, irrespective of whether they perceived the collapse of the state as a personal catastrophe or considered it the logical outcome of the Bolshevik rule. There have been and still are different opinions on the subject.

Anyway, it was a very significant and dramatic event which resulted in the people who for decades and even for centuries had lived within the borders of a common state finding itself dispersed in different countries. Our former compatriots now live in a considerable number of states which caused problems with communication and transportation, certain difficulties arose with movements, contacts with relatives, friends and so on. But it is historians' task to say whether it is the main geopolitical catastrophe or something else.

I believe the Second World War was not a less scaled catastrophe of the 20th century, and if we look at the consequences, it was a more terrible tragedy. The revolution of 1917 in our country was accompanied by the civil war when relatives fought against each other, friends shot each other. Wasn't it a catastrophe?

Der Spiegel: Mr President, we have just talked about history. Of course, we closely follow what you write, including the last week's post in your blog. What can you say about the situation in the Russian society when you talk about the Stalin's role and his high rating with the Russian public?

Dmitry Medvedev: Every historical figure has and will always have a certain number of admirers as well as a certain number of tough opponents. This also refers to Stalin.

There are 50 million Internet users in our country. What I said at the President's web site attracted thousands of comments (I have checked it today). Some people write that finally the national leader clearly said what he thought about the period of repressions and Stalin. I presented my straightforward opinion and labeled what was done then as crimes. Some other visitors write that such assessment is unacceptable because due to Stalin the country achieved a very high level of development, had a modern industry and advanced social services with many products being given for free, and almost a zero crime rate. God grant Russia's modern leaders the ability to achieve the same results, some say. The authorities must be honest and this honesty should reveal itself in finding absolutely clear legal wordings for certain historical events, which have already been analyzed in depth. From the point of view of the law, elimination of a huge number of compatriots for political or unsubstantiated economic motives is a crime. Similarly, the rehabilitation of those involved in these crimes is impossible, no matter what economic achievements were made then and how well the state mechanism was built.

This has always been my position, in any case, from the moment when, together with my fellow citizens, I gained access to respective documents and materials virtually from the beginning of the Perestroika in our country, when we got an opportunity to read many original documents. And, by the way, all this, no doubt, became possible thanks to those, who were at the helm of the state at that time, and, certainly Gorbachev, as they did not hesitate to make public the documents that cast a shadow on the public administration system, not to mention the Communist Party.

Der Spiegel: Mr President, your country pursues a fairly tough policy towards your formerly Soviet neighbours, for instance, Ukraine. Russia has not yet officially appointed its new ambassador in Ukraine. Why is Russia more likely to address problems by pressure?

Dmitry Medvedev: If you told me that the states of the European Union or even states that are simply in the European territory do not have any problems in their relations that would not be quite true. Germany has such problems and we face such issues as well.

Let’s talk about Ukraine. We have rather harsh controversies, but those are not between the two societies or the two states. And frankly speaking, there is only one person who is giving rise to the controversies and all the issues– current President of Ukraine. Such things may happen sometimes. I personally believe indeed that the Ukrainian President took up quite a contentious attitude towards our country. He is dominated by Russophobe perceptions. In recent years all his actions have been aimed at disrupting traditional ties between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Moreover, it was paralleled by unpleasant or, let me put it so, deplorable things: breach of economic arrangements, glorification of Nazi accomplices, efforts to rewrite the history. The decision to expel some Russian diplomats was an absolutely unfriendly act. And we have to respond to such things.

In a while, the election will take place in Ukraine. I hope that eventually this state will be ruled by the government that will be more pragmatic in its attitude to our bilateral contacts. Our ambassador will certainly arrive in Ukraine and take up his duties. It is within the limits of the diplomatic practice. Situations like this occur between other states as well. And it was indeed an extreme form of response. I even had to address the President of Ukraine directly in an open letter or via the video blog so that everybody knows the reasons for my actions. I believe that it is honest, it is different from behind-the-scenes diplomacy, when we smile to each other and try to show that everything is good, but in fact we play petty nasty tricks on each other.

Der Spiegel: Mr President, should we fear the escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine?

Dmitry Medvedev: There is no conflict between Russia and Ukraine. These are two brotherly countries, very close to each other that have many-sided economic relations. Despite the crisis our bilateral trade is measured in billions of dollars.

Two days ago our friends from Ukraine told us once again that they have no money to pay for our gas. Meanwhile we remember the last January conflict, when we negotiated the rules of work and agreed that if they cannot pay they should undertake efforts to obtain loans in advance. Otherwise we switch to advance payments for gas supplies. Nevertheless such a problem emerged. In my view it is due to the current election campaign in Ukraine when one branch of power blemishes the other in an attempt to score political points.

I wish that our Ukrainian friends achieve stability as soon as possible, and then it will be easier to work with them for all of us, both for the Russian Federation and for the unified Europe.

Der Spiegel: We are speaking of the history, of the situation 18 years ago and of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps, you could briefly describe the current situation within the Russian society, 18 years after the event?

Dmitry Medvedev: We are still in the process of creating a modern civil society. 18 years ago, we had some ideal views, a lot of our anticipations did not come true and lots of our illusions have been ruined. Over these past years, we failed to solve many problems such as corruption or excessive bureaucracy in making even most essential decisions, which is true both for the very top level and the local authorities.

The today’s Russian society is much better prepared and has clearer ideas on what our country should be like and what its own role should be.

Der Spiegel: Mr President, Rashid Nurgaliyev says he will curb corruption in a month. Why to make such declarations if it is impossible to achieve this even in the West?

Dmitry Medvedev: I hope that the Interior Minister has a realistic vision of ways to combat corruption. Certainly, a month is not enough to eliminate corruption. As far as I understood Interior Minister Nurgaliyev, he was talking of rectifying the most serious drawbacks within the Interior Ministry system.

As for corruption and overcoming its consequences, this problem will obviously take some years to deal with. That is a bitter legacy of ours. All countries have corruption, but in our country it has taken rather ugly forms. Corruption was widespread in Tsarist Russia, and in the USSR as well, even though it was far more latent for quite obvious reasons.

No doubt, corruption has flourished since Russia has come to the present economic and political systems. The fact that society has become more free has both the upside the downside. As for the upside, it is apparent, but the downside includes among other things a more freehand of the officials who can now hold control over cash flows, take bribes, and try to get involved in business.

Throughout the millennium of its history, Russia has had no specific anti-corruption legislation. We have now developed it, created its mechanisms that are beginning to function now, among such are the special Presidential Council and special commissions to resolve conflicts of interests. I have requested that all our public officials should disclose their incomes and those of their relatives. And they are doing so; although, apparently, no one is happy about this.

Der Spiegel: Mr President, as far as the maturity of the society is concerned, it in fact embraces not only struggle against corruption but also democracy and rule of law. But if we recall such assassinations as, for example, murder of Anna Politkovskaya and other similar cases which I will not list, unfortunately none of them has yet been investigated. And in my view, there exist very serious problems in this respect. Why is it still impossible to solve all these criminal cases?

Dmitry Medvedev: This statement is incorrect. The assassination of Politkovskaya has been investigated in its entirety. Just a few days ago I discussed this issue with chief executives of the Investigative Committee

Der Spiegel: The defendants were freed by the court.

Dmitry Medvedev: The investigators are absolutely convinced that the investigation version is correct. They believe that they did everything to expose the perpetrators.

The case will be referred to the court for a new review. But this is a standard criminal procedure and it does not mean that there was no investigation. If at some moment the court found the defence's arguments weightier it had the right to do so. Still, it is not right to allege that there has been no proper investigation.

Der Spiegel: Mr President, but not a single legally binding sentence has yet been rendered regarding all these high profile crimes.

Dmitry Medvedev: Then name such crimes. Nullum crimen sine lege. I can only comment specific cases.

Der Spiegel: What about journalist Anastasia Baburova shot dead in a Moscow street together with human rights activist lawyer Stanislav Markelov? What about human rights activist Natalia Estemirova kidnapped in Chechnya last July and killed that same day by several shots in her head?

Dmitry Medvedev: As for Estemirova's murder, the investigation, to my knowledge, is still underway.

As for the assassinations of lawyer Markelov and journalist Baburova, the suspects have been arrested and all the case materials have been forwarded to court.

Der Spiegel: What about the October election? By the end of the election day in some polling stations about 80 or 90 percent of voters reportedly cast their votes, which is much higher than the average figure for Moscow. How do you evaluate this situation as a whole?

Dmitry Medvedev: In general, these elections were conducted in a quite orderly manner but this does not mean that there were no drawbacks. Indeed, there are a lot of complaints in Moscow and some other cities and towns. I met with the leaders of our political parties and we agreed that all claims should be examined by courts.

I have met with the factions of the parliament and all of them say one thing. Yes, each of the groups is not fully satisfied with its election results, but all of them agree that the final result of the elections is an absolutely precise reflection of the current balance of political forces.

The leaders of the factions advanced a number of proposals on the ways to improve the election procedure. I will think them over. In just a couple of weeks, I will probably have my presidential address ready and I will certainly make my suggestions on improving the electoral system.

Der Spiegel: Mr President, with so many bureaucrats in Russia there is an impression that these bureaucrats might be tempted to influence slightly the elections to achieve the right results. Is that so?

Dmitry Medvedev: Even United Russia which is our main political force, the ruling party, was in some respects dissatisfied with the outcome of the elections. If an official, sympathizing with a certain political force, attempts to help it during elections, he thereby commits a crime punishable under our Criminal Code. And he must be made liable for it. I think that some of these lawsuits initiated by the parties will end in administrative or criminal prosecution.

Der Spiegel: In your fundamental article Go Russia! you used such wordings as economic backwardness, humiliating backwardness of Russia, dependence on raw materials, humiliating dependence on raw materials. Why did not Russia succeed in overcoming this dependence during the 20 years that passed since the end of the bloc confrontation in Europe though it has been integrating into the global economy during these 20 years?

Dmitry Medvedev: One becomes drug-dependent very fast, and the trade in raw materials is like a drug, and one needs ever stronger doses, especially when the market is on the rise; in recent years, the oil market has been overheated to unprecedented levels. Who could imagine an oil price of 150 dollars just five years ago? Dropping the habit of the trade in raw materials and energy is very painful, because it allows, while doing virtually nothing, still create an illusion of economic stability. There comes easy money, big money, and urgent problems are being tackled, so one can do without reforming the economy and diversifying production. We have a chance to change this hard- to-change scenario provided that we draw right lessons from the crisis.

I have a feeling that now again everybody becomes relaxed expecting surplus profits to return. Yes, it is possible to live this way for some more time. But if we fail to allocate necessary resources for restructuring industry, if we do not invest in the agriculture, we will again end up selling only raw materials. But this is a road to nowhere, all the more so, since we witness an energy revolution in the world every 50 years and nobody knows what will happen there in 2050, maybe oil and gas won't be needed in such volumes.

Der Spiegel: Mr President, the modernisation of Russia’s economy has not advanced very far over the recent years. This may be the reason for the fact that Russia was so deeply affected by the global economic crisis. As a rule, the government should be criticized for that. Why no government officials are openly blamed? For example, Mr Putin used to criticize Russian prime minister for various shortcomings quite often.

Dmitry Medvedev: The dependence of our economy on raw materials was not designed by Vladimir Putin while he was President, it has developed over 40 years by now. It will take quite some time to change the situation.

Look at the map of Russia, see the structure of our foreign trade, mind the surplus of our exports over imports, remember our social commitments, and then keep in mind the percentage of public revenue derived from oil and gas — and everything will be clear. Over the past ten years, no government cabinet was dismissed for a failure to properly perform its duties.

Der Spiegel: We are putting this question only because there are many comments to your online articles, and I dare say quite surprised and critical comments. Many people are disappointed. People are saying that there are many demands, but nothing really happens in the country. Such comments are innumerable. Everyone keeps saying: perfect words, but, unfortunately, nothing really happens.

Dmitry Medvedev: Opinions differ indeed. Actually, 16,000 comments to my article came in. It is a good figure showing that our citizens are actively reacting to what the authorities say.

Der Spiegel: How do you comment the view of many observers that Vladimir Putin and you are a general tandem to implement an ingenious strategy: the Prime Minister is dealing mostly with the traditionally minded Russians, while you are focusing on a more liberal and pro-Western part of the society?

Dmitry Medvedev: Today, there is no doubt that our tandem, as we are commonly referred to, is working rather coherently. All predictions that our tandem will break up at any moment have not proven to be true, as you can see.

As for personal preferences, I think that each individual has his or her own perceptions of whose views, conduct or presentation are more appealing. That is also true with regard to Vladimir Putin and myself. I do not wish to one day find myself and Vladimir Putin resembling the aged leaders from the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union standing on Lenin's Mausoleum in similar coats and hats, when it was impossible to tell Brezhnev from Suslov…

Der Spiegel: Who for many years was Kremlin’s ideologist. But the West was puzzled by Vladimir Putin's rhetoric on the future presidential election. When asked which if the two of you may run for presidency, he said, as if he was a Russian lord, that ”we shall sit down and agree between ourselves on what will take place in 2012“. Former president Mikhail Gorbachev was shocked and said that such things should not be decided between two people but by the electorate. But the voters seem to be of no importance any longer.

Dmitry Medvedev: I would recommend Mr Gorbachev to read exactly what Vladimir Putin actually said. He said just that if by the time of the next presidential election Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev would still be desirable as political leaders, then we shall sit down and discuss who will take part in the election in order to avoid elbowing each other. He did not say that we would decide who will be the president. This would be ridiculous.

Der Spiegel: The START Treaty will expire on December 5 and Mr Obama already has dreams of a nuclear-free world. Has he already talked with you about this issue? How does he see the ways to accomplish the goal, given that the USA and Russia should take the lead in this movement toward a denuclearised world?

Dmitry Medvedev: If we do not do it, then who will? If we do not deal with this issue, there will be no disarmament. We have really gained a good momentum recently. One has to admit that the new Administration considers this issue as one of its priorities, as compared to the previous one which did not do so, therefore we have all chances to come to agreement on a new treaty, determine new threshold levels, set control measures and sign a legally binding document already at the end of this year.

As far as the idea of a nuclear-free world is concerned, this is our common ideal, which we have to strive for, but we have to travel a difficult road to get to it, because in order to achieve a nuclear-free world not only the United States and Russia should abandon nuclear arms at some point, but other countries as well should do the same, yet there is no such unity.

Even among our close European partners, by far not all of them share our common opinion with the US President that this issue should be dealt with vigorously.

Der Spiegel: The countries in question may only be France and the UK.

Dmitry Medvedev: The threshold nuclear countries demonstrate even less understanding of the subject, let alone the countries that are trying to gain unconventional access to nuclear technologies. Besides, there is a number of countries that do not admit that they have nuclear weapons, but at the same time, they do not deny it either. We should think how to convince them all to abandon nuclear weapons.

Der Spiegel: You know that the West fears Iran with nuclear weapons. But as big as this fear is, thus big is the issue. What is Russia's stance in this sphere? How far are you wishing to support Iran both in arms deliveries and in technological development of this country? Will you support tougher Western sanctions against Iran?

Dmitry Medvedev: First, about the nuclear ambitions of Iran. These ambitions can be achieved within the programme on the peaceful use of nuclear energy under IAEA supervision. Nobody is against this. It is only necessary to comply with the existing rules and not to try to conceal any facilities.

If agreements are reached on programmes of uranium enrichment and its subsequent peaceful use in Iran, we will then gladly take part in such programmes.

But if the Iranian leadership takes a less constructive position, hypothetically anything is possible then. We spoke about this in New York during our meeting with President Obama. I would not like all this to culminate in international legal sanctions because sanctions, as a rule, are a road in a very tricky and dangerous direction. But if there is no progress, nobody can exclude such a scenario either.

Second, our national policy and my decisions are based on assumption that we will supply only those types of weapons that have a pronounced defensive nature. We will not deliver any offensive weapons.

Der Spiegel: Do you see any risk that the West will follow the destiny of the USSR when it had to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan after so many years of war with many thousands of Soviet soldiers lost?

Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, I do. If the alliance forces, the forces now present in Afghanistan, do not help the country to gain statehood, then any attempts from outside to stabilize the situation will fail no matter how many thousands of soldiers of the international contingent are present there, unless the Afghan population wishes to create statehood and govern its state as an integral whole.

The election committee made a decision to declare Hamid Karzai the elected President of Afghanistan. This is an additional element of stability. I am not assessing now the manner in which these elections took place. We have been talking about the flaws of our election system just now that is why I do not consider it fair to criticize other electoral systems even though, and I cannot fail to mention this, some time ago our American colleagues qualified both the elections in Afghanistan and in Iraq as the triumph of democracy. Well, if that is the triumph of democracy, then you are welcome to give your own assessment of the electoral tendencies that exist in our country.

The most important thing is that the Afghan people should feel the appetite for building up their own political system, for creating their own state following their idea of the rule of the people so that it is not imposed upon them but is experienced by them, that such an attitude to these processes is felt in each Afghan province irrespective of the nation that lives there. It is crucial that the radical forces that are present there pull back, be defeated, and the distressful Afghan land at last sees peace.

Der Spiegel: You said that after the fall of the Berlin Wall there were expectations that came true and those that did not. What did you mean by this?

Dmitry Medvedev: The expectations that have come true are evident: Europe is unified and a common German state exists, even though the process has been difficult as well.

As for the hopes that have not been fulfilled, well, we believed that after the fall of the Berlin Wall Russia's place in Europe will be a bit different. We hoped that the termination of the Warsaw Treaty will be followed by a different level of integration of Russia into the pan-European area. What do we get as a result? NATO remains a military alliance that possesses missiles aimed at Russia.

I will say a few words about the idea of the treaty on European security. It is aimed precisely at creating a framework to give all of us, both NATO members and European countries that are not NATO members, the possibility to discuss the most urgent issues. Otherwise the states with no NATO membership will not be fully at ease. It does not mean that I want to oppose the idea of this treaty against NATO. We should create a comprehensive mechanism to communicate, discuss the most difficult situations and ways to settle our intra-European disagreements on various matters.

The last year’s conflict in Georgia demonstrated that our security in Europe is not guaranteed. That was a European conflict. I am convinced that we must think about how to enhance the European security. It is our common need.

Der Spiegel: I would say that today's Europe is, in the first instance, a community united by common values, namely democracy and human rights. These values play a special role. The future role of Russia in Europe will depend, to a large extent, on when you achieve your goals of democracy and human rights in Russia. But are these goals realistically achievable in Russia?

Dmitry Medvedev: We share the same values which are recognized in the West. I see no major deviations in the concepts of human rights and freedoms, especially if Russia is compared to the new members of the European Union. They are no better than us in terms of political culture and the level of economic development, but they are small, and they regularly claim they have to face multiple threats.

Der Spiegel: Do you now refer to Poland and Baltic Republics?

Dmitry Medvedev: The only difference between us and them is that Russia is a big, very big country with its own nuclear potential. It would, therefore, be utterly wrong to state that there is some monolithic Europe with fully accomplished democracy versus a primeval, ignorant Russia which is not yet ready to be invited to join Europe.

Der Spiegel: One can hear a great deal of bitterness in your words…

Dmitry Medvedev: It is not only Russia who seeks foreign investment. You also wanted and want now to cooperate with Russia on the Opel, Wadan Yards and other projects. It shows that we have absolutely identical economic agendas and our economic convergence is very high.

Then the question is: what divides us today? I hope that there's almost nothing to divide us.

I hope that we will be able to continue strengthening our relations with our European neighbours. I hope that the degree of mutual understanding on the majority of issues will be growing. I hope that many of the problems that the European continent is facing today, which are quite obvious, will be solved through our active joint involvement.

November 7, 2009, Gorki, Moscow Region