On the sidelines of the 24th St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Vladimir Putin had a meeting, via videoconference, with heads of international news agencies.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good evening, colleagues.
It is a pleasure to greet you all.
Our meetings at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum have become regular. They always wrap up a day of work at the St Petersburg Forum, at least for me: as a dessert, a sweet, the most exciting part begins at our meetings. I hope, this will run the same way, too. Greetings to everyone.
I would like to skip the long opening speech and give the floor to our moderator. I think it will be more interesting and useful if we start a live discussion straight away.
Mr Mikhailov, please.
TASS Director General Sergei Mikhailov: Good evening, Mr President. Welcome, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening, and for some of you it is good night or even good morning.
I want to thank you for responding to the TASS invitation. It would be unforgivable to miss such a conversation for the second year in a row since we made a pause last year.
Mr President, there are 16 heads of the world’s top news agencies here today. This time many of you in your countries have TASS foreign correspondents standing by, and they are always ready to help if need be.
Undoubtedly, the major drawback of our meeting’s format today is that it is impossible to see the amazing and hospitable St Petersburg. We are twice as sorry to miss you at the meeting in the city on the Neva this year – I hope it will be an exception – since this time we have nine new participants. In the course of the conversation, I will introduce both our old friends and our new participants.
The time difference from Tokyo to New York is another problem – well, maybe not a problem but a factor at our meeting. We will definitely take it into account and give the floor to those for whom morning is approaching or has already arrived.
Briefly about the meeting format. I would like to ask you to prepare one question that is of the greatest importance for you. You will have the opportunity to ask your second or third question if we have enough time. I believe our dialogue will be just as useful and open as the seven meetings in the past.
Obviously, this year and last year have been unusual and sad for everyone. The world confronted the impact of COVID-19, people are mourning the loss of family members, friends and compatriots while their countries suffer enormous economic losses. This is a disaster of a global scale, which has changed and continues changing the world.
I would like to thank many of those present for backing the TASS initiative to hold our News Photo Award contest, which we devoted entirely to COVID-19 this year. We even called it Overcoming COVID. About 4,000 photos were submitted to the contest from 84 countries. Let me remind you that the winner was Brais Lorenzo Couto from the EFE news agency, Spain.
Mr President, TASS has reviewed the major themes, as usual, and the issue of COVID in 2020–2021 around the world is undoubtedly the key media topic which remains on the screens. So, this is the first question our colleagues entrusted me to ask you: How is Russia exiting the pandemic? What do you think of its causes and effects for the world?
Vladimir Putin: The causes of the pandemic?
Sergei Mikhailov: The causes of its emergence.
Vladimir Putin: Allow me to refrain from speaking about the causes of the pandemic because so much has already been said about it that I think it makes no sense speaking on this topic, and I am unlikely to say anything new or intriguing. But I suggest we proceed from the fact that we have faced this pandemic and we are living with it now. The world has yet to overcome these challenges and restrictions and we must continue our joint fight as an effective outcome cannot be achieved unless we work together on combating the pandemic.
I have already said today during the forum’s plenary that if some hotspots of the infection remain somewhere in the world, they might trigger its spread across the entire planet again. This concerns millions of people. It is very dangerous and we must do everything we can in order not to politicise these processes. Moreover, even economic advantages should take a back seat to issues of a humanitarian nature and the fight for people’s health and lives should be assigned primary importance. This is the key thing for us to do.
Regarding the situation in which the global economy, the entire world and Russia have found themselves, all this is also well known and I have already spoken about this today. This was the greatest economic slump since WWII, and Russia was not an exception, but thank God the decline in the Russian economy was not as big as the world economy’s.
In my view, we have used fairly properly and effectively the means allocated during the crisis and in order to deal with its consequences. We allocated about 4.5 percent of our GDP to this effect. This is a lot for Russia. And overall we have managed to accomplish two major objectives.
The first one was to preserve as many jobs as possible. The job market is recovering, this despite unemployment growing from 4.7 to almost 6 percent. Currently unemployment in Russia stands at 5.2 percent. I hope we will move down to five percent by the year’s end, and next year will be back to the pre-crisis level of 4.7 percent.
The second issue, which is only partly connected with the pandemic, concerns inflation. I also mentioned this today. Regardless, we have managed to preserve this crucial macroeconomic indicator. We had record low inflation of four percent, now it is 5.8. And we get this number by comparing year on year, on a weekly basis. But if we look not at weekly indicators but, say at least monthly ones, inflation today could be under 5.8. I hope we will be able to arrive at five percent by the end of the year.
The economic recovery is progressing steadily. GDP growth is forecasted at 2.9 percent. But I think, as do a number of experts, it may exceed three percent and will be around 3.3–3.4 percent. At any rate, there are grounds for hope. I mean the recovery rate.
Our healthcare system has performed rather effectively, and we managed to focus administrative and financial resources to mobilise the manufacturing sector. The Healthcare Ministry managed to convert, and more importantly, build and make available a substantial number of new hospital beds, special COVID beds technologically equipped to fight COVID, both in Russia’s centre and in the regions, with ventilators, oxygen and so on. These hospital beds remain on standby.
Most important, of course, is that Russia managed to develop and mass-produce the means to prevent people from getting COVID. As we know, this is the Sputnik V vaccine and three more vaccines that followed. They are effective. Sputnik V has been recognised by both Russian and international specialists as probably being the most effective. Its efficacy is 97.6 percent. I think in reality it is the safest in the world. Let me reiterate: after many millions of doses administered our health services have not recorded a single fatality resulting from the use of this vaccine, whereas other producers, regrettably, have had some tragic cases. We have not had them and I hope we will not have any ever, but some 10 percent of those vaccinated can run a small fever. However, it lasts just a few hours and that is it. These are just side effects. In addition, it provides active and effective protection. If people encounter an infection and get ill, they experience only a very mild form of the disease.
Concerning the economy, I believe that all steps have been taken – I will not list them now – directed, first of all, at supporting Russian families, primarily families with children. All these steps were much needed and effective.
The second part of the programme we pursued was supporting various sectors of the economy, both major corporations, as well as small and middle-sized enterprises. I will not repeat myself, those efforts were primarily designed to support the labour market. We set up a complete system of stimuli to preserve jobs. It too, overall, did the trick.
We continue such efforts to support our economy and Russian families. In my view, they have been very effective, and we will stick to this approach moving forward.
Concerning the world economy, the colleagues who are gathered here know as much as I do as to what the economic prospects are. Since different countries have different capabilities, according to experts, the US economy will recover this year, while the economies of other developed countries are most likely to return to pre-crisis levels next year. Except for China. China has already reached its pre-COVID levels. As regards emerging economies, this might happen much later, by the end of next year or even the year after that. These are experts’ tentative assessments.
I would very much like it if the hardships we faced last year pushed the world toward working more closely with one other, to rid the world of politically motivated restrictions, especially at a time when joint efforts are required for the sake of humanity and for the sake of the health and life of people around the world.
Sergei Mikhailov: Thank you very much, Mr President.
It is our seventh meeting already and certain traditions have evolved. We traditionally let representatives of the beautiful half of humanity ask the first question. Therefore, I would like to introduce our colleague from Press Trust of India, Ms Priyanka Tikoo, Deputy Editor-in-Chief and Bureau Chief. This is her first time at our meeting. We welcome you. I would certainly like to express my great concern and convey my words of support to the people of India in connection with the pandemic, which has affected India greatly. To date, 27.5 million people have contracted the coronavirus. I hope we will defeat it despite these numbers. Please, Ms Tikoo.
Deputy Editor-in-Chief and CEO of the Press Trust of India news agency Priyanka Tikoo (India) (retranslated from Russian): Thank you very much for your kind words.
Thank you very much, Mr President, for agreeing to meet with with us. My name is Priyanka Tikoo. I would like to ask about relations between Russia and India. Historically, this relationship has been very strong, but recently some problems have arisen due to the rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow, as well as due to India’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue [Quad], which the Russian Foreign Minister described as the “Asian NATO.”
Could you tell us, Mr President, if you think the rapprochement between Russia and China may affect Russia’s strategic partnership with India?
And I would also like to ask, about your stance on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and India’s involvement in it?
Vladimir Putin: We do participate in this initiative, so I do not think I should give any assessments on the participation of other countries in it. Each country makes its sovereign decision about with whom, how and in what capacity, and to what extent it builds its relations.
Let me state, though, that any partnership between countries should not be aimed at being friends simply to align against someone else. We need to be friends with each other so as to achieve common goals, to solve the tasks that states face.
I will repeat once again that we do not see ourselves in this configuration. However, this does not prevent us from working both with India and China. I do not see any contradictions here. Moreover, we have created conditions for India, China and Russia to be able to work within the same organisations and they are well known: we collaborate in BRICS, and the SCO, and we work together in the United Nations. Yes, I know, of course, there are certain issues related to India-China relations. But you see, there are always a plethora of issues arising between neighbours. But I know the attitude of both the Prime Minister of India and the President of the PRC, these are very responsible people and in their interactions they treat each other with great respect. And I think that they will always find a way to resolve the problems and issues they face. The main thing is that extra-regional powers should not standing their way.
As for Russia-India relations, I repeat, they are unfolding very successfully and in a trustful and traditional manner. We really appreciate this level of relations with our Indian friends. These are relations of a truly strategic nature, as they cover a whole range of areas for interaction. They include economic issues, energy, and high technologies. They also include the military-industrial complex, and here we are not only talking about the sale and purchase of Russian weapons. I have already spoken about this more than once, that we have very deep and trusting relations with India, which manifested in the fact that we and India (probably the only such partner of ours) take up joint efforts to design and produce, including on Indian territory, cutting-edge and advanced weapons systems, including missile equipment. But these are just a few; there are other areas in which we cooperate.
This is why I have no doubt that Russia-India relations will continue to develop consistently to the benefit of the peoples of India and the Russian Federation.
Sergei Mikhailov: Thank you very much, Mr President.
The Kyodo Tsushin news agency of Japan has been a regular fixture in our meetings, this being the seventh time they have taken part. Today, for the first time President and Editor-in-Chief of Kyodo News, Mr Toru Mizutani, is among us. He has been in charge of the agency since June 2018 and has been working there since 1979. Kyodo is the official state news agency of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo and the entire world is now following the travails this major competition, which has already been rescheduled once, is going through. We wish our Japanese friends and colleagues good luck and patience. I am sure that the world will duly appreciate Japan’s tremendous efforts in preparing for these Olympic Games.
Mr Toru Mizutani, it is nearly morning where you are. Thank you for your perseverance. Your question, please
Presdient and Editor-in-Chief of Kyodo News (Japan) Toru Mizutani (retranslated from Russian): Hello, my name is Mizutani of Kyodo Tsushin news agency.
First of all, I would like to thank you, Mr President, for the opportunity to take part in our meeting and also to thank Sergei Mikhailov and everyone else involved in the preparation of this meeting for organising it.
The Tokyo Olympics have been mentioned now and I would like to seize this opportunity and ask how we can develop our relations and use sporting events and cooperation at them to promote our talks on the northern territories. There is much talk nowadays that amendments to the Russian Constitution have led to the situation when it may not be possible to even discuss the possibility of the transfer or the return of the four islands. How can we build a dialogue now? We always were of the opinion that concluding a peace treaty has been a problem directly connected with the return of the four islands.
Vladimir Putin: You see, Japan’s stance has changed very often since 1956 when there was talk about two islands. Afterwards, at your initiative, at Japan’s initiative, we stopped any talks about this part of the Kuril Islands. Later we resumed them at the request from the Japanese side when the discussion was about two islands. After that the Japanese position changed again and this time it was about four islands. Meanwhile, neither Russia nor the Soviet Union ever agreed to that. Therefore, yes, constitutional amendments have been adopted, and obviously we must take that into consideration. However, I do not think we must stop peace treaty negotiations.
There are many subtle issues here, and during preliminary discussions we asked our colleagues, friends and partners a number of questions including those related to ensuring security. We were very interested in how we will resolve these issues considering that your allies plan to deploy modern assault missile systems on Japan’s territory. And we always had a concern about whether those missile systems will be deployed at a distance that will threaten the Russian Federation. Regrettably, we never received an unequivocal, firm and clear answer.
However, I think we must in any case build neighbourly relations with Japan, which both the people of Japan and the people of the Russian Federation want. We are natural partners in very many areas. For a number of reasons I will not waste time listing them. Our friends in Japan are aware of them.
Therefore we are ready to continue these consultations, taking into account modern realities, but proceeding from the understanding that strategically both Russia and Japan are interested in concluding a peace treaty.
Sergei Mikhailov: Thank you, Mr President.
Our old-time partners and good friends, who are progressing rapidly, are working in all thinkable and unthinkable news formats while maintaining the honourable traditions of Xinhua News Agency. This coming November, Xinhua will celebrate its 90th anniversary.
I am delighted to welcome the new Xinhua President and Editor-in-Chief, He Ping. He was appointed the agency’s president but also retained the post of editor-in-chief at a very difficult time, in October 2020.
Mr He attended our meeting in 2018 as the agency’s editor-in-chief. We congratulate him on his new appointment.
I would like to remind everyone that He Ping holds many professional awards, for example, China’s Top 100 Journalists Award. He supervised the production of a series of documentaries, The Country’s Photo Album, which has won nationwide recognition and received the 10 Most Influential Documentaries in China Award in 2017.
Mr He, your question, please.
President of Xinhua News Agency (China) He Ping (retranslated from Russian): Good afternoon, colleagues, Mr President.
I remember the year 2018 and the forum, which was held here in St Petersburg, very well. You agreed to grant an interview to me and answered my question. That time we spoke about bilateral trade between Russia and China and that our trade should grow to more than $100 billion. As you have mentioned now, our bilateral trade was more than $100 billion during the past three years.
Here is my question. This year we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation between Russia and China. This is a new historical start for us. What are your expectations, and what are the priority spheres you discussed with President Xi Jinping for the development of Russian-Chinese relations of comprehensive cooperation and strategic partnership in a new era? How can we advance them to a new development stage? How should we streamline and reform the international system of governance and create a Community with Shared Future for Mankind? What efforts can be made in this sphere?
Vladimir Putin: You mentioned the Treaty, which undoubtedly played a vital role in the development of Russian-Chinese relations. They are truly unprecedented in terms of the quality and level of interaction. But we both understand that it is not just about the Treaty, although it really is a very important thing, an important document, and an important milestone. The point is that Russia and China have many overlapping interests. This is what underlies the development of our interaction.
In this regard, one of the key fields of cooperation is the one you already mentioned at the start, and that is economic cooperation. Quite so, several years ago now, President Xi Jinping and I worked out a plan to reach the $100 billion mark in our mutual trade. Now I should tell you (you know about this) that we did actually reach this milestone, and more than this, even despite the challenges of the pandemic in 2020, we kept to that level. Despite the slight decrease, it amounted to 104 billion. And I think that over a period of the next few years, as we agreed, as we wanted, we can reach 200 billion even by 2024, despite that slight decline. We have also discussed this with President Xi Jinping. The pace we have gained and the growth rate we have achieved in the first quarter of this year also confirm this.
It is of upmost importance that we cooperate across a wide variety of areas. We are following global trends and we are increasingly focusing on the most important fields of high-tech. I have repeatedly mentioned that we continue to work together in aircraft manufacturing, we are more and more expanding our cooperation in space, including the joint lunar programme; there are very interesting prospects here.
Quite recently, you are aware, President Xi Jinping and I broke ground for four new nuclear reactors in China. This is very important high-tech collaboration.
Work continues in other segments in the energy industry too. On the other hand, I believe our cooperation in nature conservation and in the humanitarian field is no less important. From year to year, we hold a variety of forums, all kinds of cross year projects. This brings people ever closer together. All this requires good support in terms of infrastructure, so we are developing it as well. Quite recently, you know we have opened a bridge in one of the most important regions of the Russian-Chinese border.
Russia and China are jointly working on major projects that have an international dimension. As you are aware, China is promoting the New Silk Road idea, including in the economy. This is quite consistent with what we are doing within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union.
We have many overlapping interests and fields of activity. I simply do not doubt for a second that we will continue to be as active as possible, keeping in mind both Russia’s and China’s interest in maintaining collaboration on the international arena, and this interaction is undoubtedly one of the most important factors of stability in international affairs.
Sergei Mikhailov: Thank you, Mr President.
Thank you, Mr He.
I am happy to introduce the first-time participant in this kind of meetings, Mr Cho Sung-boo, President and CEO of Yonhap News Agency, South Korea. He took the lead at the biggest South Korean news agency in 2018 and in 2019, his colleagues elected him president of the powerful Organisation of Asia-Pacific News Agencies.
It is now early morning in Seoul. Please go ahead, Mr Cho. Thank you for staying up for us.
President and CEO of Yonhap News Agency (South Korea) Cho Sung-boo (retranslated from Russian): Hello, everybody. My name is Cho Sung-boo and I represent Yonhap News Agency.
First of all, I would like to thank Mr President and Mr Mikhailov for the opportunity to participate in this meeting.
In 2017, Russia and China presented a joint plan of action, a roadmap on North Korea’s nuclear issue, and in 2019, in pursuance of this roadmap, Russia presented a joint plan and asked everybody to support and fulfil this plan. I would like to ask about Russia’s stance on the North Korean nuclear issue and the prospects for resolving it.
Last year, Russia and South Korea celebrated the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. I know that Mr President even wanted to visit South Korea but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from doing that. The pandemic is subsiding. Does Mr President have any plans to visit my country this year?
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much for your questions.
First of all, I would like to say that the relationship between Russia and South Korea is developing well in a great number of areas. We are satisfied with our economic cooperation with South Korea. Indeed, the pandemic caused a certain decline in trade but already in the first quarter of this year, we noted that trade is recovering.
The question that you have formulated is, of course, extremely important and sensitive not only for the Republic of Korea, but also for the entire region and one can also say for the whole world. The North Korean nuclear programme is, naturally, the focus of your attention as well as ours.
I have formulated Russia’s attitude on this subject on many occasions. We are point-blank against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction all over the world. Everybody, including our friends in North Korea, are well aware of this. Still, I would like to emphasise that a solution to this problem should not be based on “strangling” North Korea or any further sanctions against it, but rather on the creation of conditions, which would guarantee the security of the North Koreans. And in this case, acting from such positions, using tact, patience and desire to solve this matter, I think we could make some progress.
By the way, over a period of the past years, when there was at least an attempt to follow along this path, we could also see some positive trends, including a favourable response from the North Korean leadership. However, later on North Korean partners, above all the US partners, drifted away from their earlier obligations, which brought about another spiral of tension.
I would like to believe that all of us, including Russia, will find an optimal way of solving the North Korean problem. However one of them, since we all live in one region and Russia in this context is a regional country: we have a common border with the DPRK, we also have such an instrument as trilateral programmes, primarily in the field of the economy, and we have not forgotten them. Unfortunately, they are not being implemented but we are ready to work together to do this and it seems to me that it could create good conditions for solving issues in the political sphere.
Sergei Mikhailov: Thank you, Mr President.
The Reuters agency has been repeatedly involved in our meeting. I am happy to be able to introduce you to Reuters President Michael Friedenberg for the first time. He came to head the agency in December 2018 and immediately started planning his visit to Moscow and St Petersburg. Unfortunately, these plans were adjusted because of the coronavirus pandemic. Michael, I am confident that you will visit St Petersburg soon.
It is not necessary to say much about the Reuters news agency. Suffice it to recall that the agency, the world’s largest multimedia news provider, will mark its 170th anniversary in October 2021.
Michael, your question, please.
Reuters President Michael Friedenberg (retranslated from Russian): Thank you very much, Mr President. Thank you for the time. Congratulations on holding this magnificent forum.
You will soon hold talks with President Biden, on June 16, and it appears that you disagree on some political measures. But your opinions coincide in some areas, including the environment and strategic stability. What would you like to achieve during your summit with President Biden?
Vladimir Putin: You know, I am not expecting any breakthroughs following this meeting. But I believe that (you are absolutely right) that, despite the disagreements, which were not created by the Russian side, we, nevertheless, have coinciding interests.
You have now mentioned some of the subjects that would be of interest to the United States and the Russian Federation. This includes the solution of environmental problems, strategic stability and joint work to resolve a number of regional crises. All this is highly important because this is linked with our countries’ security matters, considering intra-regional crises, such as in the Middle East. What do these unresolved crises lead to? They cause an upsurge in terrorism, and this is extremely dangerous for everyone, including the United States, Russia, Europe and other regions. These unresolved matters are the cause, and terrorism is the direct consequence of what is happening in these regions.
Strategic stability is extremely important. We don’t want to scare anyone with our new weapons systems. Yes, we are developing them, and we have achieved certain results and successes here. But all leading countries and leading military powers are doing this, and we are just one step ahead. We realise that other high-tech countries, such as the United States and other states, will achieve similar results sooner or later. Therefore I believe that it is better to reach agreement in advance on how we will live together in a changing world. We are ready for this.
I assume that President Biden is a very experienced politician who has been dealing with politics all his life, he is well-versed in many of the problems I have mentioned because he was time and again involved in assessing similar matters, in different capacities. This is why I hope that our meeting will be constructive.
To be continued.