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Interview with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev

Aired January 22, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program. Tonight a special edition from Russia and my exclusive interview with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, here at his office outside Moscow, we talk about everything, just days before the Summer Olympics begin.

The fears raised by a terrorist threat to the Winter Olympics and concerns about human rights because of Russia's antigay propaganda law. From Sochi to Syria and everything in between, Russia is at the center of nearly every major global story today.

First, that shocking threat to the Olympics and security is ramping up south of here after Islamists militants vowed to attack the games which begin in just under three weeks.

And then there is Syria. The Geneva 2 conference underway: can Russia really be an honest broker, backing Assad to the hilt? I talked about all of this with the prime minister when we met in his library here at his office.


AMANPOUR: Prime Minister, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining me.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, PRIME MINISTER OF RUSSIA (through translator): Good day.

AMANPOUR: Let me start by asking you about the Sochi Olympics. This a moment of great pride for Russia, great anticipation for the world's athletes. And yet you have a major security threat.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): You put it right, this is a major event for our country, for the whole of the world. The Olympics, all these constituents are huge, a feast of sports.

Before I speak about security, let me say several words on what we expect from the Olympics.

We expect a huge number of visitors. Overall, we have sold 1.2 million tickets, which is a huge amount, huge number for the Winter Olympics.

And together with the TV broadcast through the Olympics will be the speculators. So it's a huge feast of sports. And we'll do our best to make it successful.

We have completed all the works, all the facilities and venues already. Everything was -- is as we planned.

With respect to the threats, on public events, there are always some threats. That's not only in this country but also in others. In this country, they have some specific nature and consequences. Definitely we are aware of that and we will take that into account during the Olympics.

AMANPOUR: Let me just ask you to be specific, the Russian security forces, the government has sent out an alert about a specific so-called Black Widow who may have penetrated even the ring of steel around Sochi already. And hotels are being told to look out for this person. Flyers and posters are being sent around.

Given the amount of security that you've put in place, how is it possible that this could happen so close to the games?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): You know, we are having a very tough struggle against terrorism. This is the relative our life of today. And all those threats, including the ones you have mentioned, occur not in the context, not only in the context of the Olympics. And we keep fighting them every day.

Sometimes we have good results but sometimes we don't have results we expected. But anyway the struggle will be continued.

AMANPOUR: Even a U.S. senator told CNN, athletes, U.S. athletes, don't go to the Sochi Olympic Games. This must be terribly worrying for you.

Are you afraid that some people just might not turn up?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I believe that the threats during the Sochi Games are no greater than at any Olympics in other places. We speak frankly: it's a global world, globalized world and we know about other deplorable developments in other countries, including the United States during sports events.

AMANPOUR: You're talking about the Boston Marathon.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): That's exactly what I meant.

To consider that there are some special extreme threats to -- for American athletes would not be a right thing to do. But any person, any senator has a right to express his or her own view. We are confident that we'll be able to protect all the athletes that will arrive and we will hold the Winter Games.

AMANPOUR: Now, extraordinarily, some athletes have their own private security they're coming with. The United States apparently has warships and planes, a whole evacuation plan, if things don't go according to plan and if there's any danger.

The head of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Rogers, said to CNN, they -- you, the Russians -- are not giving us the full story about the threat.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I believe that we have good cooperation, a decent level of cooperation between special services of Russia and the United States on that matter.

Definitely we believe that our cooperation could be better, could become better probably. But on the whole, the cooperation between our special services is now currently at a good level, especially with respect to the Olympics.

And I believe that these contacts help us solve a host of domestic issues of ours. They help both us and the Americans. And the cooperation I believe will be at a good level during the games. I am positive.

AMANPOUR: I'm going to come back to talk about other elements of the Games. But I want to move on to another major story happening right now, and that is the so-called peace conference, Geneva 2, trying to resolve the Syrian crisis.

One hundred thousand-plus people have been killed in the last three years in Syria. There is starvation in the land, haunting many people. And there just doesn't seem to be any way out of this.

What are your real hopes for this Geneva 2 conference this week?

Do you think that there's really going to be some kind of solution?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I am optimistic about this event. I have really optimistic aspirations. I will not -- I'll be frank: all the stakeholders should take place, all the countries which in this or that way are all either neighbors or partners of Syria and other forces which have the key stance in the Middle East.

Why am I saying this? The thing that has happened with the revoke or withdrawal of the invitation to Iran, I believe that's unacceptable.

Can someone think that Syrian problem may be seriously discussed without the Iranian factor, without the account of it?

Of course, everything should be taken into account. But when the international community or the U.N. first extends an invitation then withdraws an invitation, that is not consistent and that does not contribute to positive result to this.

AMANPOUR: Forgive me, Prime Minister, all of these things that are happening just seem to me to show the international community paralyzed. Nobody quite knows what to do.

Secretary Kerry has recently said that Syria is the biggest magnet for terror of anyplace today. Many would say because it's been left to fester for the last three years.

I know President Assad talks always about fighting terrorism. You also are very concerned about the terrorist threat.

But would you not concede that there have just been too many people killed by the Assad regime, that this has got to somehow stop?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): The problem is that in Syria, unfortunately, there is the civil war in its nature. And who is to blame? I believe everyone is to blame. I do not idealize President Assad; me and President Putin mentioned and said that Assad is not one of our strategic partners.

Assad was the friend from -- of our colleagues from Europe. Of course there are those who do not -- do not like the regime. That's understandable, but there are also bandits. I can't call otherwise people who call themselves the state of Iraq and Levant.

These are bandits, the terrorists, this Al Qaeda; which negotiations or talks can we have with them?

AMANPOUR: I want to show you a picture.

This is a pretty shocking picture. It shows an emaciated Syrian. And these are pictures that a defector, who used to be military police in Syria, brought out. There's 55,000 pictures seeming to show that 11,000 people, prisoners, were killed by the Assad regime.

And an international panel of jurists, very highly respected, have testified to the credibility of this defector.

Again, what is your reaction? This is a direct accusation that would stand up in court, according to these jurists, against the Assad regime.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): You know, in my university where I was studying law, I was taught that until the fact of guilt is proved in court, a person cannot be claimed guilty.

I know there are a lot of victims, and that's very sad, but that does not mean that the existence of victims or victims in a particular place is the proof that those are the victims of the regime and not the bandits who were doing something or any other force.

AMANPOUR: These come from. according to the defector and corroborated by international jurists who were chief prosecutors at U.N. tribunals, apparently in a Syrian government detention facility, 11,000 people killed since 2011 by starvation, by strangulation, by heavy, heavy beating.

In fact, I've got another picture which I can show you if you want, but I --


MEDVEDEV (through translator): I saw different pictures, yes. That - - these are all sad pictures and sad consequences of the existing conflict. But I'd like us to speak the same language here and I repeat, all those crimes -- and these are crimes, of course -- should be -- should have firm proofs legally.

AMANPOUR: I understand that the legal process has to play out. But if they did, would you condemn President Assad? I've never heard you condemn him. I've never heard any Russian official condemn him for 100,000-plus death and these kinds of pictures.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Let me reiterate that we don't whitewash anyone. We cannot say that Assad is a criminal without investigation. Assad is the current president and he cannot be ignored or disregarded. And the situation in the country is very difficult and complex.

So the main task of the international community is to try to do its best to resolve the conflict and afterwards carry out an investigation.

AMANPOUR: Stand by, Mr. Prime Minister. We're going to take a break. And when we come back, we'll talk about Russia's economy. We'll talk about human rights, political rights and all sorts of other issues, right after a break.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back.

We're going to continue our conversation, Mr. Prime Minister, about Russia's economy which is your main area of responsibility.

Obviously, for many years, Russia's economy was exploding on the back of high energy prices, high oil and natural resource prices. Over the last year or so, growth has sputtered to about 1.3 percent.

How difficult and challenging is it for you to move the engine of the Russian economy again?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): The main thing is that the Russian economy unfortunately so far has the considerable footprint of the raw materials and commodity driven economy nature, which supports energy. But the main task for us is to alter the structure of our economy and to move to different technological tier, to create a high-tech economy, contemporary high-tech economy, based on knowledge and innovation. This is a difficult task, but we can solve that.

AMANPOUR: One news report, a business magazine, said that you, Prime Minister, are hanging onto your job, clinging onto your job, because the President Putin is not happy with the state of the economy.

Is that true? Is your job in danger?


MEDVEDEV (through translator): You know, everybody is stratified by the state of our economy, although have a (INAUDIBLE) figure. Our economy last year grew by 1.4 percent. This is not much. But this is not a disaster. On the other hand, no one is happy, neither me nor the president nor those who get -- try to get the groups with the economy to grow as I -- as we want to grow.

We should make some step change, a breakthrough; if we succeed, we'll be able to attain the goals we set forth.

AMANPOUR: Now the OECD had a report recently in which they said your problems are not just structural in terms of the economy, but it's being held back by poor governance, they say, and rule of law issues.

For instance, this report says only 10 percent of entrepreneurs have never encountered bribery; in other words, presumably 90 percent of business people trying to work here have to pay bribes or there's corruption.

Corruption is a huge problem, according to business people here.

Do you admit that?

And what about governance? What about the rule of law that can, you know, give investors the trust to be able to do the kind of business that you need here?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I don't know what exactly report of OECD you're referring to. But I just met the head of OECD during the Gaidar Forum, Mr. Gurria.

AMANPOUR: Yes. He's the one who said this.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): And he said a very good thing that to some extent made me laugh. He said and smiled, he said the crisis in your country -- the crisis is better than in other places. He was quite upbeat with respect to how things stand in this economy. Probably it was the courtesy of a guest.

If we speak of the main difficulties we are to overcome, the main issue is the creation of the good and sound business environment. At some part, corruption, of course, it's an evil, a scourge and it impacts the business climate, it can -- it irritates everybody and entrepreneurs included.

But it's not about corruption only. It's about the weakness of our institutions that are participating in the shaping of this business climate. The scale may be different after we move to a market economy in this country. This now is much more serious a problem than it used to be in the Soviet times.

AMANPOUR: Of course, all of this is in sharp relief again, because of Sochi. The Russian government says that the cost of these Olympics is $6.4 billion. But others --

MEDVEDEV: Six point four.

AMANPOUR: Is that correct?

What is the cost of the Olympics? Six point four?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Well, I'll explain to you what --

AMANPOUR: Because the reason I ask you is because everybody else is saying it's $50 billion --


MEDVEDEV (through translator): I'll tell you everything, don't worry.

The costs for the Olympics themselves are a bit more than 200 billion rubles. That is the figure which you named (INAUDIBLE).

But if we --

AMANPOUR: The six point four--

MEDVEDEV (through translator): -- compare it --

AMANPOUR: -- figure --

MEDVEDEV (through translator): yes, that's of --but if we speak about the costs for development of Sochi for creating road infrastructure, transport area, railroads, to solve difficult infrastructural problems in Sochi, which were accumulated during decades, there was no water supplies, proper water supplies. There was bad power supply.

So those figures are of course larger. But those costs were to develop one of our regions.

AMANPOUR: You're not concerned that some of that money has gone into people's pockets, that it's been skimmed, it's corrupt?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Of course, the investigations should be done. And if it will be proven that someone has stolen something, and that there was corruption, of course the procedures are going; the investigations on a number of actions are being held.

And if they prove something, then we can speak about the scale of corruption. Now we don't have the data.

AMANPOUR: Stand by. We're going to take a break and after that we'll come back with a final thought.




AMANPOUR: Let me get back to some political questions.

You obviously consider yourself a democrat. You said once that we are well aware that no non-democratic state has ever become truly prosperous for one simple reason: freedom is better than no freedom.

You still believe that?


People looking at Russia are shocked, disappointed, worried, concerned about what looks like a distinct lack of freedom. We see certainly President Putin really controlling the opposition to the point that the opposition, the political opposition has no space. It's irrelevant.

Surely that must concern you because it's about your reputation. It's about your people, your governance, your ability to prosper.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): I said that the freedom is better than non-freedom and I still share this opinion. There is no doubt about that.

But when I'm being said that the overall situation in the country is deemed it's difficult --


AMANPOUR: No; I'm talking about in terms of --

MEDVEDEV (through translator): -- our (INAUDIBLE) --

AMANPOUR: -- human rights, democracy, the ability to challenge politically? That's a basic democratic right.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): -- I believe that that's not -- that does not correspond to the real situation.

You spoke about opposition. And let's begin that I had the largest party in Russia, the United Russia, and of course it has

AMANPOUR: But you and President Putin were very close together.

Trying to challenge President Putin has not been easy.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): So about the opposition, just a minute, in the parliament, we have four parties now. Of them, only one party is associated with the active authorities, that is the United Russia, which I head. And that is normal, because this party has the parliamentary majority.

Now as far as the civil freedoms are concerned and the legislation, there can be different evaluations. And everyone has the right to do them, journalists, analysts, foreign and domestic.

You mentioned a number of famous or notorious draft laws that I believe, frankly --

AMANPOUR: You're talking about the anti-gay propaganda law?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Yes, of course, but they are either emotional or most of them, the commentaries, 95 percent of them or more, are being done from abroad.

AMANPOUR: Many Russians are telling us they're terrified. Many are leaving, gay people. People are worried. People are worried about their future.

What will you do to reassure them, then?

MEDVEDEV (through translator): If you mean the situation with the anti-gay propaganda draft law, the so-called traditional values, I believe that this problem in our country is the concern of the significant part of people. That's the first.

Second, I haven't almost heard the -- that this law was applied in practice. There are many talks, but no application of the law, practical application.

The third, in difference from many countries where such relations are forbidden, in this country, the relations themselves are not forbidden at all legally. So I believe that this has nothing in common with the real situation in our country, the comments, I mean, and the rights of gays as well.

I have seen no application in the Internet from the Russian sexual minorities where they would write that their rights are violated.

But the situation caused some disturbance in other countries. So I believe that this problem is partially non-existent.

AMANPOUR: Prime Minister Medvedev, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

MEDVEDEV (through translator): Thank you so much.


AMANPOUR: That's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching and good night from Moscow.