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Meeting with students from Lomonosov Moscow State University’s Journalism Faculty

January 25, 2012, Moscow

Dmitry Medvedev marked Russian Students Day by discussing current national political, social and economic development issues with students from the Faculty of Journalism of Lomonosov Moscow State University.

Mr Medvedev last met with students from the Moscow State University faculty of journalism and representatives of youth organisations on October 20, 2011.

* * *

Excerpts from transcript of meeting with students at Lomonosov Moscow State University's Faculty of Journalism

President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Hello everyone,

I congratulate all of our students most sincerely on St Tatyana’s Day – the day that students all around Russia, including at Moscow State University of course, celebrate as Students Day. Today is a special day.

Seeing as my last visit to you raised some mixed emotions, I thought it proper to come here again and congratulate you on St Tatyana’s Day and at the same time give you the chance to ask your various questions.

But before giving you the floor for questions, let me just say a few words first about the profession that you have chosen to study for. Journalism is certainly a very interesting profession. If I were younger now and decided to go and study, I am not sure whether I would enter the law faculty or some other faculty, but I certainly have no doubt that you have chosen a very interesting future profession. I say this not for the sake of compliment, not to try to please and tell you how wonderful or otherwise you all are. I started to develop a real interest in journalism when the new media started to emerge. Of course, I read and watched the traditional media, and still do, but the internet era has brought great change not just to the mass media environment but to life in general. You know yourselves the effect these changes have had, and in some ways we perhaps have yet to fully understand or at least fully analyse their influence.

I say this because aside from the questions on our political and economic life, our country’s future, our various state institutions, and quite simply all of the various problems and interesting issues I am sure you will raise, I’d very much like us to talk, too, about the development of mass media. I am a lawyer, as you know, and though I do not overestimate the importance of laws and the legislative environment, I still think much depends on them nonetheless, and I think that the law on the mass media currently in force has turned out to be a remarkable success. It sometimes gets reproached with being too idealistic and never changing.

But the thing is, when a particular law does not change over the course of decades it is a sign that it actually works quite well. Usually, whenever proposed new amendments to the law on mass media get brought to me, I ask the media community what it thinks and the answer is always that it is better to leave things as they are. I would be interested to hear your views on whether or not we should make any changes to the law on mass media.

The other subject I would like to discuss with you is the development of the new media. They are the subject of much discussion now, but at the same time, we see that they lack a solid foundation on which to base their work. This is a problem all around the world. To be frank, I have raised this issue on a number of occasions at meetings with my G8 and G20 colleagues, but oddly enough, I was probably the only person with an interest. Perhaps because this issue really does interest me. So, if you want to discuss this question too, I think this would be useful, not just for today’s discussion, but for the future too. This is because the kind of legal regulation we might eventually develop will play a big part in shaping your future work and have a big effect quite simply on the atmosphere in our country, its democratic spirit, and on the situation today and tomorrow. I will stop here for now.

Once again, I congratulate you on today’s holiday. Now let’s talk and let you put the questions you perhaps did not get the chance to ask last time.

* * *

Question: My name is Vladimir Kulikov. I am a student in the department of television.

I am greatly saddened by everything currently happening in Russian journalism and television. I am even more saddened by everything happening in our nation. To be honest, for the past three years, I have been seriously considering moving to another country. I am very concerned by this.

In your interviews, you frequently talk about responsibility, personal responsibility, how you make certain decisions and feel that you will get feedback from millions of people. I would be interested to know the following. Right now, a very serious revolutionary situation is ripening in our nation. You can feel it in the conversations people are having, and I see it in the comments online. And I’m wondering what your personal strategy of behaviour will be during a revolution in our nation.

How are you carrying out your responsibility, your measure of responsibility? Are you prepared to enter a people’s court (which we will likely have in the event of a revolution) and would you be ready to defend your every decision and your ideals? Do you understand that this court will most likely be biased, because all revolutionary courts are biased? Do you understand that you might even be sentenced to death? Would you be ready to bravely accept it, as Saddam Hussein did, or will you leave and go to a friendly nation like North Korea, where you directed so much sympathy following the passing of their leader, unlike Vaclav Havel? Thank you.

Dmitry Medvedev: A quick remark concerning people’s passing. Unfortunately, you simply didn’t follow the events very closely. With regard to Vaclav Havel, I also sent my condolences. But that’s not the point.

Vladimir, you have probably asked the bravest question of your life. My congratulations. You prepared for a long time and asked it with all the proletarian frankness. I will give you a straight answer. Any person running for President must be ready for anything – and I, too, am ready for anything. Why? Simply because if you have made the decision to do this, then you must understand that the fate of an enormous number of people depends on you. We have over 140 million people, and Russia is a very complicated nation – a nation that has terrorism and many hidden conflicts; a developing nation with numerous problems, including in the political system and the economy; a nation with a high poverty level. And so, the President must be ready for anything.

If you are talking about the current political situation… You know, I am probably a bit older than you are … how old are you?

Answer: You are 20 years older.

Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, I am 20 years older than you. So my attitude toward this is calmer. I remember 1989, and 1991, and 1993; I remember when we had tanks firing at the parliament. It was a sad situation for our nation. But we managed to pull out. Incidentally, television stations were seized too, and many other things happened. The point is that today we also have enough problems. And perhaps, in this regard, I cannot be fully satisfied with what I have done in the last four years.

As for predictions concerning the future – that is a thankless job. But in any case, I am certain our nation does not need any revolution, because Russia had its share of revolutions in the 20th century. Unfortunately, we made so many mistakes… I am referring to our predecessors, government leaders. And not just the leaders. You understand, after all, that it is not just the leaders who take part in revolutions, but also an enormous number of people, different people: those who believe in the ideals of the revolution piously and devoutly, and those who are making a career. But ultimately, what do these revolutions do in general? Revolutions eat their children.

So I would be very unhappy to see the events in our nation develop into a revolution or other extreme situation. But I will tell you honestly, I do not see sufficient preconditions for it. We have a significant number of people who do not like the current political system and the current set of political leaders – that is absolutely normal. Perhaps after some time, they themselves will come to power and run the country, if they can prove their views right and show that they are capable of running state affairs.

I can agree that it is imperative for us to work on improving our political life, because I have my experience, I am older than you, and ultimately, I have been in the government for a long time. I remember the 1990s. We had one situation in the 1990s, and a different situation in the last decade; now, we are living in the second decade of a new century. And every decade has had its own political principles and mindsets, but at the same time, we maintained the backbone of our political system.

I can tell you earnestly that about a year ago, I also had the sense of needing to let fresh air into our political system, simply because it is over-regulated. For example, legislation on parties does not correspond to today’s needs, even though a few years ago, I felt that we should have exactly the legislation that was in place. Why? Because we need to have strong parties, rather than hasty ventures participating in elections in droves. But now, it is clear that these rules are no longer functioning properly.

This also pertains to other issues, including both Presidential elections and procedures for our parliamentary elections, and that is precisely why I submitted these suggestions on changing our political system in December. And I would like you and your friends, your colleagues, and everyone who can watch us via their iPhones and other gadgets (for we did not specifically plan to broadcast this meeting, it is being recorded, as far as I know, only for the needs of Moscow State University) to know that these changes have not been planned only last December; I planned to do all this a year ago. Indeed, I see that to be the duty of the President.

And to conclude my answer to this question, I would once again like to say: I am not afraid of anything; otherwise, I would not be able to work as President, and believe me, this is a difficult job.

Question: Can you give us an honest and concrete message: are you prepared for death penalty, to die for your ideals, or not?

Dmitry Medvedev: I understand. If you are interested in an honest answer: yes, I am prepared to die for my ideals. Incidentally, ideals are not just the Constitution or a set of high values. They also include such things as family, children, and everything else. These, too, are values for which we must be ready to suffer, based on various considerations.

Question: My name is Olga Slobodchikova, I am a fifth-year student, and I would like to ask you the following question: do you think there is a connection between December protests and the fact that you are not running for a second term? Do you think that this decision was, to some degree, a cause for the protests?

Dmitry Medvedev: I have tried to clearly explain why I am not running for a second term; I don’t know how well I succeeded. I feel that this is a question of political expediency. Incidentally, I never said anywhere that I would never run again. Let me remind you that I am only 46 years old. This is not so old an age as to eschew future political battles. But this time, it is true that I decided not to run, again, based on political expediency, because I felt that two people who represent the same political force should not compete. The person who currently has a higher chance of winning should be the one who runs. We will see whether this is the right approach after the elections in March.

As for the declarations and events that have occurred since the State Duma elections, I cannot directly link them to my decision not to run for a second term. But I suppose it is possible that among the people who were out in the streets to protest, some may have wanted a different situation, including my participation in the presidential elections. This is entirely possible, it’s normal.

Question: My name is Artem. I am in my third year.

Here is the camera with a green cable; the cable is for direct broadcasting via satellite dish. But there will not be a direct broadcast, because there will certainly be people present today who want to ask oppositional, uncomfortable questions.

Dmitry Medvedev: That’s not why.

Question: Also, we all know that many television programmes are being shut down, as is certain news coverage. Some journalists are not being allowed to work. In other words, this is a question of censorship. Why is it that in this free, democratic nation, which is carrying out plans for modernisation – if we are taking examples from Europe and, to some extent, the US – why do we have censorship?

Dmitry Medvedev: Artem, first I will answer with regard to broadcasting, so that we don’t have any misunderstandings. When I consulted with colleagues, I decided to do it for entirely different reasons. I am ready to answer any of your questions and I do not see anything scary about them being asked live on the air. Moreover it would be advantageous for me to a certain extent, as a political player. The issue at hand is different: I do not want you to think I came here to promote my political views. Refuting this notion is precisely the reason I had the idea for this meeting, as a simple meeting with journalism students, and not because I don’t want your uncomfortable questions to be seen or heard somewhere.

This is particularly true since you understand that I cannot hide anything: you yourselves will tell everyone about it; you will show it all yourselves, it will still find its way to the Internet and other channels. And moreover, the audience that is most valuable to you will still receive this information. That is precisely why I did it. But if you feel this question should be shown, then we can show it, because the camera is indeed recording.

Now, the main question. You know, I will once again invoke my experience. I have seen a great deal: I saw the censorship of Soviet times, and I remember the 1990s, which should not be perceived as years when there was no censorship. Naturally, we all live at a time when, as you feel, there is a certain level of censorship and it is impossible to show certain things in the media. I have a more complex view toward this. I feel that it is a complicated process of adjustment and creating rules of the game in our media space. Because today, it is impossible to shut down any kind of events. Incidentally, I myself have said this many times to state media. All media must have one agenda. But this does not mean that state media, for example, if that is what you are talking about, must show absolutely everything that is relevant online. I also spoke about this: the issues making the headlines are not always the issues of greatest concern to many of our people.

I will not idealise the situation. In many cases, the government (government in the broad sense of the word, I am not referring to specific people) does, perhaps, whitewash the living situation. This does not concern only the federal media; it concerns the regional media as well. To be frank, not a single leader wants to be shown in negative light. And if they can, they will use their influence. What is the answer to this? Incidentally, this is another topic that I would like for us to discuss (I forgot to mention it in my opening remarks). We simply need different media. It is true that we have many, and there are too many state media. Even if we are talking about channels, in addition to the two formally state channels, Channel One and the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), we also have NTV, which belongs to Gazprom, and an enormous number of regional channels that are controlled by local leaders. That is precisely why I stated, over a year ago, that regional media must be sold. Unfortunately, so far, this is not happening as quickly as I would have liked.

We also need to decide the fate of the federal state media. This does not mean that the government should drop them altogether. I feel (this is only my point of view) that the government should have one strong good channel it can use to share its positions. Naturally, this does not mean that the channel should be subject to censorship, but it can showcase the events which, for example, the other media do not always show.

As for everything else, the media overall as a field must belong either to businesses or to public associations. Thus, the idea of public television should be revived in our nation, as I specifically said in December. The only question that remains is, on what foundation. After all, we knew even before that it is necessary to create public television. And people have come to me with projects of this kind. The main question I’ve always had is how will these media be funded? If the funding comes from the federal budget, then these media will not be independent. Because in that case, it will be a state media outlet, with all the ensuing advantages and disadvantages. And we already have media of this kind – many of them.

We therefore need to find a different source. What would it be? And that is something I would like us all to discuss; I would be interested in hearing your ideas and your views. You know, for example, that the BBC is funded by taxpayers. Given that our nation is not very wealthy, I am not certain that millions of our television viewers would be thrilled by this idea. But we can think about some other funding options, other than the federal budget. That is the option we are currently working on.

What should we get as a result? As a result we should get the kind of television that is funded through independent sources, not oligarchs’ money. Because perhaps you do not remember this, but I remember the 1990s, when one channel would fight another. That was the situation. One channel belonged to one oligarch, and another channel belonged to another. And naturally, this was not about the genuine freedom of speech. It was all about the advancement of personal goals, including financial and business. Whereas we need to create public television that will work, so that at least we can say, “Some people are unhappy with the way events are covered by state channel, so turn on the public channel, which gives you a different point of view,” if there is one. Because things are much more complicated. And that is precisely what I am working on now.

To sum it all up, I do not feel the situation is that simple. I can agree with you that our media frequently come under pressure. But this does not mean that we have some sort of unbridled censorship in our nation, for several reasons.

First of all, nobody introduced it and nobody specifically supports it. Second, it is my deep conviction that censorship is impossible in the modern world, aside from individual exclaves like North Korea, which has already been mentioned today, and a few other nations. So we don’t have any censorship in our nation, either. Everything that people want to say will ultimately reach their audiences anyway. But our task is to ensure that the state media become better in this regard, and that a significant part of these state media are sold.

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Question: My name is Alexander Nazarov, and I am a fourth-year Journalism student. I have another question. Recently, you and Mr Putin have spoken a great deal about liberalising the political system and possibly allowing the non-systemic opposition to join the official politics in Russia. I would like to ask about your attitude to the fact that in recent years the ranks of non-systemic opposition, apart from the people who have been in politics for a long time, such as Vladimir Ryzhkov and Boris Nemtsov, have been joined by a lot of public figures, for example blogger Alexei Navalny, TV host Ksenia Sobchak, writer Boris Akunin and journalists Oleg Kashin and Leonid Parfenov. And if non-systemic opposition really does reach a different level of political activity and actually begins to oppose the “party of power,” which of these people do you see as a potential leader? For whom do you have the greatest respect and who do you consider the most dangerous opponent for the existing political elite in Russia?

Dmitry Medvedev: Alexander, I would just like to point out that I'm not just talking about liberalisation; I have actually done it.

Future generations of Russian politicians, both those who are called the systemic opposition and those who are referred to as non-systemic, will reap the fruits of this liberalisation. Let’s wait and see what will come of this non-systemic opposition. I think that some of the people you have named have a good chance to create their own political parties, to promote their values and fight for these values to the last drop of their blood, as was said earlier, not afraid to lay their heads on the chopping block. This is the first point.

Second. I would ask you to bear in mind that I am not only the incumbent President but also a man who represents a certain political force. I do not want to inflate any one of the people you’ve mentioned by saying who is the strongest and who can compete with the authorities. Let them prove it. All those bloggers, writers, and other folk, they’re all interesting people, no doubt, but politics is a different business. It is a different business altogether.

When I arrived in Moscow from St Petersburg, I was also a pretty confident young man, I was 35 years old and I had been appointed to a high position. I thought to myself that I was such a success, flourishing in business, a good lawyer and a popular lecturer, so I shouldn’t have any trouble with all these political intricacies. But it is a completely different thing. I was sadly mistaken. It's a different world, very tough, very complicated, conservative and rigid, and you have to adapt to it. Political life is somewhat different from the laws governing social networks or our own personal perception of life around us. A journalist or a writer has a different perspective on reality. That is his good fortune and his mission. So I do not know what will come of these highly respected people you named. I cannot say which one of them will become a real politician and who will remain one of the well-known people who shape public opinion in our country. But I have no doubt that some of them will establish their own parties in the new political environment. It will be fun. And if it’s going to be fun, then I have no doubt that everything will be all right.

* * *

Question: I would like to ask if you have considered the possibility that you may not become the Prime Minister of Russia in May, or at best will become the Prime Minister in the “big government”. What office do you see yourself occupying in the next six years?

Dmitry Medvedev: First of all, I do not know what will happen in May. I allow for very different scenarios. And whatever they say, my colleague Vladimir Putin still needs to be elected and to secure the voters’ support. If he succeeds, it is highly likely that I will become Prime Minister. If he does not succeed, then I will continue working for the good of this country with a clear conscience. Where? I don’t know. But I can tell you absolutely frankly that first, I will not leave politics and second, I do not rule out the possibility that after some time I will run for President again because, let me reiterate, I feel I have the energy and knowledge to do so.

I have been working for some time, and I find the work interesting. You can see even from sociological statistics that a significant part of the electorate supports this policy. So if I don’t get the post it will not be a tragedy for me. To be honest, if I was afraid of losing my job or really wanted to remain President, I would not have done what I did.

For me, power has always been a secondary factor in my life, and that is the absolute truth. It does not mean that I am not interested in it, but even when I first arrived in Moscow, I realised that it was only temporary. Sooner or later it will come to an end, and I'll return to a normal human life. And in fact I very much hope that someday it will happen. Perhaps one of you present here will become future President or Prime Minister, or an official of some sort, and I can tell you that it is a difficult life that requires constant, 24/7 mobilisation and very hard work. It really is like that. So I would not mind a break but I am not planning to take one yet.

* * *

Question: My name is Vika, and I am a first-year student. I have a question for you as the guarantor of the Constitution. Under federal law on elections of the President of the Russian Federation, government officials are released from their duties for the duration of the election campaign. And under federal law on civil service in the Russian Federation, the Prime Minister is an individual who holds a public office and is, therefore, a government official. Why in this case, presidential candidate and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not taking a leave of absence for the duration of the campaign?

Dmitry Medvedev: Vika, your question is very to the point. It is a question to Vladimir Putin more than to me, but I will answer it. Vladimir Putin is not a state official in accordance with our law.

Let me tell you as a lawyer, and not as a guarantor of the Constitution, not as President, not as Dmitry Medvedev, but as a person who has a law degree and believes himself to be an expert in this field.

We have civil servants. In addition, there are individuals who hold government posts, including the posts of the Government members and Prime Minister. In accordance with the law you have referred to, and in accordance with the practice of enforcing the relevant legislation, which has developed over the past twenty years, neither the President nor the Prime Minister have ever taken leave, because it is in line with the spirit of the law.

Why? Because it is impossible to imagine a situation where the President or Prime Minister leave their posts and say: “Sorry, I have to work on the election campaign.” That is international practice. Barack Obama doesn’t take leave either, and nor do other state leaders. Prime ministers don't take leave. That is how it should be, considering the need to guarantee security and regulate economic institutions. Therefore, the fact that he did not take leave is not a violation at all.

Question: My name is Khalimat Tekeyeva, and I’m a fourth-year Journalism student at Moscow State University.

In December, after the events on the Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue, you introduced a draft law on the election of governors. Let me remind everyone that gubernatorial elections were abolished at some point in the past and the President appointed governors himself. There is one line in that draft law, which I think is very good, that confuses me. 

Dmitry Medvedev: I can guess which line you mean.

Question: It is about the interview with and approval by the President of Russia. Could you explain it to me, please? I think I have the right to know what the interview is all about and whether it is a case of changing things for the sake of change, so that heads of regions will now be approved by the President, whereas before they were appointed by him.

Dmitry Medvedev: You certainly have the right to know this, just as everyone else present here.

Let me correct you on a couple of points because lawyers like to split hairs. Currently, governors are not appointed by the President but are approved by the region’s Legislative Assembly on his recommendation. That is not the same thing, because there may be different parties in the Legislative Assembly. However, it is true that I have decided to change this system and I have been thinking about it since the beginning of last year. Before that, to be honest, my position was radically different. I believed it was beneficial for such issues to be addressed by the President and the Legislative Assembly because our country is very complex; it is a federative state that experienced such problems in the past as separatism and natural growth issues, when it was torn in different directions by the centrifugal forces in the 1990s.

But at some point I began to realise that this desire to pull the country together and to ensure that all executive bodies work in unity, heart to heart as they say, and that they do not engage in populism or the promotion of some small group with its own vested interests – that this system does not work. Why? Because the governors who are fully dependent on the President no longer depend on the people they represent, and this is also a problem. I began to watch closely the governors I had appointed, as you say, or recommended, and I saw that many of them are excellent managers, have a lot of common sense, but they are no good at all at communicating with the public, with their people, and largely focus on other priorities. That's why I made this decision. I stress, it took time to mature, though I confess that less than a year ago I had a different opinion on this matter, I thought differently but I also have the right to change my position in the end. It is better to change your position than not to change it.

Now, regarding a good draft law that contains one ambiguous line, as you said. First, let's wait and see what this draft law will look after it is debated in the State Duma. Second, if you ask me, I do not consider such interviews necessary, but they may be required in certain situations. Note that in addition to the interview with the President, the draft law stipulates the possibility of self-nomination, which will take place without any interviews. Any citizen residing in a constituent entity of the Russian Federation has the right to nominate himself or herself without any interviews with the President or anybody else.

Remark: No approval of the President?

Dmitry Medvedev: None.

Read the draft law closely. It stipulates that candidates for the post of governor are nominated either by political parties or independently. If you decide to nominate yourself, you will not need to consult with me and will be able to take part in the elections.

* * *

Question: Alexei Kamynin, sixth-year student.

I have the following question. I don’t know if you were briefed about this or not but there will be a rally both at the Bolotnaya Square and the Sakharov Avenue on February 4. I have personally attended all those rallies and I know that the people who come there are disappointed with the four years of your presidency, even though some of them had voted for you. I would like to ask if you think it may be advisable for you to go there and try to explain your position to them?

Dmitry Medvedev: As I understand, these rallies were attended by the people who are generally disappointed with the situation in the country, not just with me, and they have every right to feel that way. This is the first point.

Second. In my opinion, the people who took part in the rallies and marches following the State Duma elections did not do so because they are disappointed in particular individuals, although there are plenty of them as well, but simply because they believe that the state does not show a proper degree of respect for them. I think these people make up the majority of protesters. That is why the state should take into account the people who go to different rallies, be it on Bolotnaya Square, Sakharov Avenue or rallies organised by other political parties, systemic opposition and non-systemic opposition. They are Russian citizens and the state must respect their views.

As for explaining my position to them, you know, I am not afraid of anything in this life because I am the President. I can explain my position to anyone. But I will not go and talk to people at rallies dedicated to the election results or something else. If someone wants to tell me something I will be happy to meet and talk with them without any problems, and that includes the people who attend protest rallies, as well as any other people, systemic, non-systemic, loyal to the government, those who hate the government, those who may or may not be disappointed with me. Actually, if you think about it our chat today is an example of such a communication channel. On the other hand, it is not the President’s business to speak at rallies and explain himself. The President’s job is to enforce his policy. I will enforce my policy until May 7, 2012. If someone doesn’t like it, I cannot help them. I have tried to do my job honestly and responsibly. This is my position.

Question: My name is Karina Oganesyan. I am from the Television and Radio Department.

Mr President, there is a wide range of television channels today, including web-based platforms. Why did you decide to create a public television network and how you personally see its content?

Dmitry Medvedev: Karina, I would like this television network to be honest and I don’t want people to ask the kind of questions about it that I have heard here today: censorship or not, I've already answered a question from one of your colleagues on this matter. I repeat, I have my own opinion on censorship. I do not believe that there is censorship on our television channels but I am aware that a lot of people are unhappy about the state television channels’ agenda today. We need something else, but not online because the Internet is already free and follows its own laws.

I’ve believed for some time now that online media and Internet TV will at some point begin to squeeze out the usual media and conventional television. But frankly, this is not happening to any great degree because most people still watch regular TV. If that is the case, we must give them more choice, and one option is to create a public television network. I don’t know what its content will be like and if it will be interesting. I'm not sure that everyone likes the BBC and its programmes. In any case, it is a highly professional media outlet, and no one can throw a stone at the state and say, ”You know, they directly influence BBC programming.“ Although for the sake of objectivity, we must recognise that very often, when new political forces come to power, be it in the UK or in France, they change the top management of television channels: that is a fact. No one is without flaws. But in any case we need to get such a venue, such a channel, that would not raise any doubt. That is how I see the meaning of public television. What will be its audience share? I don’t think it will be very large because people are more interested in entertainment than information products, as I am sure you know. But if it has 10 to 15% share, it will be a great success. We can still decide on its content.

* * *

Question: My name is Eradzh Nidoyev, I am a fifth-year student. I would like to ask about Russian-American relations. As we know, they have not improved in the last year; on the contrary, they have become strained. Do you think that the change of US ambassador to Russia will help to somehow improve Russian-American relations? And what is happening now between Russia and the US in general?

Dmitry Medvedev: Nothing in particular is happening, relations have not gotten worse, despite widespread misconceptions. For example, there are topics on which President Obama and I have significant disagreements, but our interstate relations have not gotten worse; nor have our personal relations. My colleague and I have good relations. I have said this many times. This helped us resolve many highly serious problems. You yourselves are aware of what we have done in the last few years.

There are topics on which we have significantly different views, such as the well-known ballistic missile defence issue. You know what that disagreement entails. Everyone has their own considerations, but nevertheless, I ask you to take into account the fact that Russia was, is, and in all likelihood, will remain a nuclear power, and we are not indifferent to how others react to our nuclear potential. So this is not a problem of Medvedev-Obama relations or, perhaps eventually, relations between Putin and Obama, or somebody else. Rather, it is simply a problem that will remain in the long-term and will likely become more acute in 2018–2020. That is how it is.

An ambassador’s mission is to advocate the interests of his or her nation. Mr McFaul, too, asserts the interests of his state. As far as this is done within the framework of existing diplomatic conventions and diplomatic traditions, I do not think there is much need to analyse this situation.

I know Mr McFaul personally. He is a smart person who knows our country well. I do not want to delve into the details of his work, as it has only just begun. In any case, this is an ambassador from a foreign state. And he should be treated like any ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary: with respect and the understanding that he must do what is proper for an ambassador and falls under his scope of authority. In all likelihood, he will soon present to me his credentials. And since our country granted agrément for Mr McFaul’s arrival, which is why he came, these credentials will be accepted.

But I will tell you something else. My colleague Barack Obama informally coordinated this appointment with me in advance. Let him work. I hope that he will be successful. But he must certainly understand that he works in the Russian Federation, not the United States of America. And our nation has its own particularities, just as any ambassador has his mandate. I will leave everything else without comment, including various political forces’ visits to the ambassador. That is their business. They can do what makes them happy.

* * *

Question: My name is Alena Pakhomova, I am a first-year student.

The global political arena will soon be subject to major changes. As we know, many nations will be holding presidential elections. My question is, what are the countries with which we must reload our relations, as we did with America? And can this be done with Georgia?

And a personal question. Is it possible to make it easier for Georgian citizens to enter Russia? Many of my friends cannot enter Russia, as well as thousands of Georgians.

Dmitry Medvedev: We are prepared for any opportunity to make things easier, and I will even say that we are absolutely ready to re-establish diplomatic relations with Georgia. After all, we were not the ones who severed them. There is only one person with whom I would prefer not to interact, you understand for yourself who I am referring to, and I will not be meeting him or shaking his hand. As for all other political figures and the Georgian people overall, I would very much like for this estrangement to end as quickly as possible.

What have we done recently? We re-launched air transport services. Now, following Russia’s accession to the WTO, I expect that our exchange of goods will be more active. And I completely agree that human interaction should be simplified. But it is imperative for the Georgian authorities to reciprocate.

* * *

Question: My name is Alexandra, I am a fifth-year student.

This week, one of the private television channels showed Yukos’ former lawyer stating that according to his information, you wanted to free Mikhail Khodorkovsky last summer, but failed – that was his wording. I would like to know, is this true?

Dmitry Medvedev: It is not true.

Question: And my next question: how do you see the fact that Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself and the overall situation surrounding him has become a bargaining chip in the run-up to the election?

Dmitry Medvedev: This question is a fairly serious one, because you are right, this individual has indeed, unfortunately for him, turned into a kind of bargaining chip. His is a sad fate and I sympathise with him, simply because he is in prison and that is not a good experience for anyone.

At the same time, I have stated my position many times, and this position cannot be different; the President does not have the right to hold a different position in principle. As long as Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s sentences remain in force, he is considered guilty of the crimes he committed, and I want to be clear that this is the only position the President can possibly hold.

As for the charges against him, I can tell you very honestly: the matter is most complicated. Even with my legal background, it is very hard for me to fully understand the charges in any criminal case. At one point, I demanded to see these materials. I will tell you that they can only be fully understood by a group of very experienced attorneys. Let them apply their skills to the second investigation, where there is a chance for an appeal and opposition procedures.

And finally, with regard to my intentions. The President cannot simply decide to pardon someone. This would be absolutely unacceptable with regard to an enormous number of people who are serving out sentences. But the President has the right to pardon any individual who addresses him with the appropriate appeal. Mikhail Khodorkovsky has not made this kind of appeal to me. I know that this is his ideological position. Like anyone, he has that right. But the President can only consider a written appeal for pardon. Incidentally, I reviewed many such appeals in the last few years, and not just on minor offences, but also serious crimes. In some cases, I pardoned individuals who were sentenced to fairly long prison terms. In other words, the practice of granting pardons in various cases, and in cases of this type, does exist. But ultimately, that is a decision that must be made by the convicted individuals themselves.

And lastly. I truly would like to see all political aspects eliminated from this case, because a great deal of controversy has evolved around it, and yet every case determines the fate of an individual and should be judged in accordance with legal criteria. Incidentally, this was pointed out by the international court which, as you know, did not see political motives in this process. But the future depends on corresponding decisions by the court and Mr Khodorkovsky himself.

* * *

Question: Mr President, on December 4, I was an election observer at the 1181st precinct in Moscow, waited until the end of the votes’ count and received the final protocol.

The following day, I looked online, on Facebook, and saw an announcement that some of the observers’ protocols did not correspond with the results posted on the Central Election Commission website. I thought this was some kind of nonsense; I didn’t even check my own protocol right away. But it turned out that my protocol was also discrepant. I am currently drafting a statement of claim. I know that out of over 30 such statements, the courts only supported one as of the end of December – the one where the local commission, the precinct commission itself, agreed with the claim that something was wrong with the protocol. All the others received replies that they had either a preliminary protocol or a draft protocol. I am afraid that the same will happen with my statement of claim. And since everyone asks the President for help, I would like you to, well, not you personally, but have instructions given…

Dmitry Medvedev: Why not? I can do it myself. Just give me the documents, if you have them, please.

Question: I will absolutely give them to you. And another brief question. You said that the Constitution is your ideal. I would like to ask why you have not arranged a nation-wide referendum, which is mentioned in the Constitution even ahead of free elections as the main method for expressing the will of the people and exercising the power of the people.

Why has Russia still not held a referendum, why did you amend the Constitution without a referendum, and when, in your opinion, will the people be ready for referenda? When will we have referenda? This is the first item in our Constitution.

Dmitry Medvedev: Of course I am following very closely the investigations into all circumstances regarding the election. I have some experience in this respect, considering that this is not the first election I am following here, as is the case for you here today, no doubt, but have been following elections for the last 20 years. 

Let me be frank with you: we are far from having everything perfect and spotless precisely because we are still a growing and developing democracy with a political system that is also still in the process of developing. But, even though I know you might not understand my words, I want to say one thing and I want you to hear it from me personally: I have experience in monitoring elections since 1991, and no matter how much the State Duma election is criticised – and in some cases there undoubtedly were violations, perhaps even flagrant violations – but this was the most honest election in our history to date. That is my view.

This does not mean that we can sit back and relax. On the contrary. Let me make another point. People are not willing to put up with the same problems and shortcomings in the electoral system and voting process that they closed their eyes to five, seven, ten years ago, simply because society has matured since then. That is the fact of the matter.

Without going into all the details, let me say that in the 1990s, elections took place in such a way as to produce quite tectonic shifts, but no one paid attention either at home or abroad. Society was not yet ready then. Now society has matured, and the authorities must mature, too. By ‘the authorities’, I am referring not just to the country’s leadership, but to government in general and the officials at every level, including in the local electoral commissions and in the polling stations and so on. These officials are all the same people as all of us anywhere. If violations are happening, it is there, and these people must also make their decisions and think about the future, their own future too.

On the subject of conducting investigations and holding court hearings, I am impressed by your very pragmatic approach. One cannot simply engage in political hysterics and cry about how bad everything is and how dirty the election was. If there are grounds for going to court, do so. But remember that the courts are far from satisfying every suit filed. And this does not mean that they have received an order to rule in favour of or against such suits. I can tell you that no such orders are given and no one would dare to do so, no sensible person, at any rate, because if it leaked out to the public it would be tantamount to signing one’s own sentence. The talk of pressure on the courts is just talk. And so, if you have the grounds for going to court, do so, and pursue the results you seek. A final report will be drafted once all of these cases have been examined.

But I hope you also realise that, ultimately, we need simply to work together to improve our electoral system. I do not see any tragedy in what happened, but I do think that we now must do all we can to ensure that future elections go ahead with as few problems as possible, though I can assure you that there will still be problems. When the next cycle of elections comes round in 5–6 years’ time, no matter which party is in power or who is president, there will still be violations and attempts at fraud. Our job is to do all we can to make sure this is under public control, including the kind of control that you are involved in, and make sure that the authorities respond to you and do not simply brush you aside like irritating flies. That is the task for the authorities.

On the subject of a referendum, you are wrong here because the Constitution and the law on referenda make it clear that decisions regarding the areas in which I made amendments to the Constitution come under the parliament’s authority and do not have to be put to a referendum. The Constitution can be changed in two ways: through a referendum and convocation of an assembly if necessary, or by having a decision passed by a qualified majority in parliament. Issues not related to citizens’ basic rights and freedoms – and the amendments in question did not concern the Constitution’s section on basic rights and freedoms, but was about changes to the length of government bodies’ mandates – come under the parliament’s authority. The decision in this case was passed by the State Duma and approved by the Council of Federation in accordance with the law, by qualified majority. Neither I nor the parliament overstepped our powers by an iota. 

I do agree with you on one thing, though, and that is that the authorities should take the position that there are many more issues that could be decided through referenda today. And I am not talking about just national or regional referendums. Why not consult with citizens on urban development policy, for example, on what to build or not build?

This is all the more so as, as I’ve said in the past, I am sure that it will become easier to hold referenda in the future than it is today. Today this is still quite a complicated and unwieldy procedure. Perhaps we should even think about ways to change it. But in the future, as electronic communications keep developing, I am sure that most referenda will become electronic, on the lines of the votes we hold in the social media, for example. But for this to happen the social media would need to have verification means, so that you can be sure your vote has not been stolen and falsified. In this respect, I see great potential for developing national or regional votes using electronic communications. I hope that if not now, then 5–10 years down the line, these kinds of referenda will appear.

* * *

HEAD OF THE MOSCOW STATE UNIVERSITY JOURNALISM FACULTY’S NEW MEDIA AND COMMUNICATIONS THEORY DEPARTMENT IVAN ZASURSKY: The USA has the SOPA law, and there was talk at one point of concluding a Moscow convention, talk of our proposals and initiatives. But what struck me most is that the only global antidote to SOPA is if SOPA becomes a local jurisdiction law, given that the Americans envisage giving it global scope. The only chance then is to push other global initiatives, other rules of the game, and then within the USA itself there will be fewer supporters of such fierce and excessive defence of intellectual property rights such as Disney and others. They will then have fewer arguments in the US Congress and would simply end up isolating themselves if they start taking draconian measures.

Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you, yes, the situation there is complicated and the US initiatives all aim for a global reach. They take the position that there should be a global justice system and global rules that they put forward. But such is the lot of big countries. Whatever the case, we still have to work with the Americans.

As far as our initiatives go, as we discussed, I explained our initiative to our G20 partners. I do not know what their reaction will be, but you know the position the conservative-minded countries take. We are not about to bury this initiative, however, but will continue to promote it.

* * *

Dmitry Medvedev: Friends,

I want to say just what an interesting discussion this has been, and not just because you asked me frank and honest questions. Actually, I would not say I heard anything out of the ordinary – these are questions that get raised often. Rather, I want to thank you for the way you asked these questions, and this is probably the most important thing for journalists. You asked your questions confidently and calmly, unfazed by the occasion, and at the same time, you did so in polite and proper form, and I think that for our journalism profession and for our country in general this is very important.

We did not talk much about culture today, and I must say that, regrettably, our culture in this respect is not yet at a very high level. I am talking about culture in the broadest sense, including the culture of government, of civil servants, journalists, and political battles, and this is the root of many of our problems. We all need to raise ourselves to a new level. If we succeed in this, we will be a very happy, educated, and strong country. I hope that then, none of you here will leave Russia, and if you do, only to go on holiday, and even then, here at home.

Thank you very much.

January 25, 2012, Moscow