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TIME: Some theorists say Gorbachev and Yeltsin made a mistake by putting glasnost before perestroika, that if they had done things the other way around, Russia would look different today and might not have gone through the upheavals that is has. Do you accept that?
PUTIN: Well, I don't believe that democratization, if you mean by glasnost democratization, should be postponed. It is equally clear that market transition could be postponed to a later date. Well, everything in its good time, and what happened happened.
TIME: Were the 1990s a time of paradox for you? On the one hand, you say it gave you the Gorbachev freedoms; on the other hand, in your statements you have stated that there was a period of total collapse and the tragedy of the destruction of the Soviet Union.
PUTIN: I don't see a paradox here. The administrative planning system that prevailed in economic life, and the complete domination of the Communist Party in the political area, resulted in a collapse of the country. When people no longer cared about the state they lived in, they didn't need such a state, therefore there was no surprise that the people couldn't care less about that state. They believed that things couldn't get any worse, but it turned out that they could, and did. The tragedy is that people were utterly dissatisfied and disillusioned because the free-for-all was declared as democracy, the theft of billions of dollars was described as the free market and the theft of enormous assets belonging to the people were declared privatization. What did the collapse of the Soviet Union mean? Twenty-five million Soviet citizens who were ethnic Russians found themselves beyond the borders of new Russia. Nobody gave thought to them. Twenty-five million would make up a major European nation. Before taking a decision, one should consult the population. Do you want to live separate from the state you live in now? I'm confident that if we were to hold a referendum in many of the former Soviet republics, the vast majority would say no. But nobody asked them. Was that a democratic solution? Of such a difficult problem? Well, we're not trying to revisit this but that was so. Who asked us or them? Twenty-five million Russians found themselves outside the Russian Federation, without any economic means, amid growing local nationalism. When they couldn't possibly come to the new Russia, to their historical motherland, because they didn't even have money to buy a train or a plane ticket. Is it not a tragedy?
TIME: Let's talk more about how Russia interacts with the former Soviet republics.
PUTIN: As I've said, I believe the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy, but what happened happened. I believe that we should build our relations with the former Soviet republics on the basis of absolute equality. Through this approach, we can embark on a process of economic integration, realizing our natural competitive edge in the global economy. We have a common energy system. Electricity. We have a common transportation system. Like in the European Union, we do not have to invent the rules of use of national languages. We have a lingua franca in the former Soviet Union, Russian. We have many other things that bring us together. Many economies, many industries are not able to sustain themselves without relying on countries like Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics. I believe that we must build our relations based on those principles.
TIME: What about some of the conflicts you've had with the former Soviet republics on gas prices?
PUTIN: What conflicts? There are world prices, international prices for gas. And we sell gas to everyone at world market prices. Why should we sell to anyone below the world market prices? Do Americans sell to anyone below the market price? Could you come to a store in the United States and ask, well, I'm from Canada, we Canadians are close neighbors, give me that Chrysler at half price. What would you hear from the salesman? Go away!
TIME: Well, if I were California I might sell gas at a discount to Nevada, to benefit a neighboring state.
PUTIN: I believe that this is a violation of the market principles, damaging the economies in question. Within Russia, we've adopted a program of reaching the world price levels for domestic consumption. Any other approach would distort economic indicators and economies, making one sector dependent on other sectors, leading to cross-subsidies and destroying the economy. We do understand the difficulties of our partners. For 15 years, we were selling them energy resources way below the market prices subsidized to the tune of $3 billion to $5 billion a year for Ukraine. This cannot last forever. The Europeans are always criticizing us. They want us to introduce international pricing standards. Otherwise, they say, our enterprises would enjoy an unfair advantage over European enterprises. So within the country we should sell at world prices while to our neighbors we should sell below the world prices? This is discrimination. Let's be frank and speak directly and call a spade a spade. What I'm about to say is not aggressive in any way, but I urge you to be frank. The United States somehow decided that part of the political elite in Ukraine is pro-American and part is pro-Russian, and they decided to support the ones they consider pro-American, the so-called orange coalition. Well, O.K., you decided to support them. Do as you please, although we don't believe it's right. Of course, they have people with different outlooks there and with different political tastes, but as I've already mentioned, if a politician wants to be popular, he or she must protect the national interests first of all, be Ukrainian nationalists in the good sense of this word. And they are. They are not pro-Russians. They are not pro-Europeans. They are not pro-Americans. They are all pro-Ukrainians, but somehow Americans divided them all into pro- this or that. We believe that is a mistake. Let them settle their issues themselves. Everything that's been done there is unconstitutional, which has created distrust among various political groups and citizens, thus undermining Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and economy. That's what the United States has done and is doing in Ukraine and in Georgia. What we say is, leave them alone, without choosing sides. When everyone saw that destabilization was under way in Ukraine, they tried to force Russia to subsidize the Ukrainian economy at our expense. Why? If you want to support someone, you pay for it. Nobody wants to pay. In this room, I once discussed this with a European politician and I said, you pay for it, and he replied, am I an idiot? Well, I'm not an idiot either. One has to look at the real problem. We should not be guided by generalities, and the situation prevailing there is very dangerous in my view. Everything must be done to consolidate society, consolidate the country. Strategically, it would be right that the pro-Russian, pro-Western groups would unite and think about the future of their own country and create such a power structure that would only further consolidate the nation rather than divide it among the Westerners, Southerners or Easterners, or whatever. What is happening now is a movement toward further destruction, which is a pity because Ukraine is very close to us and because almost half of the population have either friends or relatives in Russia. There are 17 million ethnic Russians there, officially. Almost 100% of the people consider Russian as their mother tongue.
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