Valeriya Korableva, reporter at Channel One: Good afternoon. We are live with the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin and today’s programme hosts, Yevgeny Rozhkov and Valeriya Korableva.

Yevgeny Rozhkov, reporter at VGTRK: This is a joint project between Channel One and Rossiya television channel. You can watch the broadcast live on Rossiya-24, too, and listen live on radio stations Mayak, Vesti FM, and Radio Rossii.

Valeriya Korableva: Our colleagues Olga Ushakova, Vera Krasova, Nailya Asker-zade, and Olga Pautova will be helping us in the studio, and Tatyana Remezova and Natalya Yuryeva are working at the call centre.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Let me say a few words about our guests.

We have the heroes of TV reports here today, people from all walks of life, doctors, teachers, workers, businesspeople, farmers, students, scientists, military personnel, law enforcement officers, and others.

Valeriya Korableva: The issues raised include rising prices, the drop in living standards, bad roads, the housing and utilities sector, health sector problems, and conflict zones, old and new. We will talk today about all that is really on Russians’ minds. There are already many questions and they continue coming in.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: We will discuss the main issues today and put the big questions to the star of today’s programme – the President of the Russian Federation.

So, here, live, we have Vladimir Putin.

Valeriya Korableva: Good afternoon.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Good afternoon.

Mr President, this is the question processing centre, or the call centre, as we also call it. It is one of the few such centres specially established by Rostelecom to collect the questions people are sending to you for this direct line.

There are several centres because one alone would simply not cope with the volume. Dozens of messages are coming in every second – SMS and MMS messages and telephone calls. If you look around, you see the girls busy taking the many calls coming in.

At the computers over there they are taking video calls. We have someone right now who wants to put a question to you live. Incidentally, these video calls are one of the innovations of this year’s Direct Line.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Excellent.

Valeriya Korableva: Let me show you how it all works. The operator is taking the call right now. It’s a call from Omsk Region, a video call, and this young lady wants to put her question. It looks like a question about roads.

Vladimir Putin: Let’s hear the question.

Valeriya Korableva: There’s a real hail of questions about roads this year. Yes, let’s hear what she wants to ask.

Vladimir Putin: Go ahead. So, roads then, well, this means we get straight into the heart of things this year, without any warm-up.

Question: Hello, Mr President.

My name is Yekaterina and I am calling on behalf of the people of Omsk Region. We have a problem here, and it’s no small problem – it’s our roads. Take a look at what state they’re in. It’s just one pothole after another. Our cars break down on these roads, the wheels come off.

The authorities turn a deaf ear to our problems and pleas. We try to take action, organise petitions, but the authorities ignore us. The people here don’t have proper roads, no bicycle paths either, the trees are being cut down, and there’s mud everywhere.

Valeriya Korableva: Is this the centre of town or the outskirts?

Response: This is the centre of town. There’s also the question of the metro we’ve all been waiting for so long, but its construction isn’t going anywhere. We just get told that it will be built eventually.

Mr President, Omsk will soon celebrate its 300th anniversary. This is a symbolic date. The local people all hope that by this date at least our city will be a fresh new place with the roads and green spaces we ask for. Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: What is your name? Can she hear me?

Valeriya Korableva: Yes, she can hear you. You can talk.

Response: My name is Yekaterina.

Vladimir Putin: Yekaterina, this is indeed a problem that has worsened of late, strange as it may seem, given that we set up the regional road funds a while ago and have been allocating considerable funds for their work. I spent all of yesterday looking through the questions coming in, and I see that, despite the efforts, very many people have complaints about the state of our roads.

This is obviously not by chance, because I looked at the different issues people are raising, and road-related issues really account for a huge share of questions, which means that this is a real concern for people, not just in Omsk Region, but in other parts of Russia too. I looked at how the road funds are spending their money, and I see that the funds are quite substantial, but a lot of money is getting diverted to resolving other tasks.

The Government and I will think about this. In any case, I believe that what certainly needs to be done is, first, to make sure that road construction funds are used according to their intended purpose. Heads of Russian regions used to be against this approach, since for them these funds were and still are some kind of a piggy-bank, if I can say so, where they could source money to fund other purposes. In fact, they were not prevented by law from doing so. These funds should be earmarked specifically for road construction and overhaul, especially taking into account that no more than 10 percent of the road construction funds go towards overhauling roads. This was the first point.

My second point is about what else can be done within a short timeframe. A decision was taken to raise excise duties on motor fuel by two rubles. Initially we expected to channel all this revenue to regional road construction funds. However the Ministry of Finance, as it turns out, has a plan to transfer the proceeds from this two-ruble increase to the federal budget due to the well-known shortfalls with the budget. We have to keep in mind, that these are not easy times for the Ministry of Finance in terms of balancing the budget, as we will discuss later. I think that we need to find a compromise in this respect by maybe leaving at least one ruble in regional road construction funds. This would amount to some 40 billion rubles, and would hopefully improve road quality.

As for Omsk, of course, the city should benefit from improvements as it approaches its 300th anniversary, and even more so its road network. For that, Russian regions should adopt the same approach as we have on the federal level. Why not? I’m talking about the so-called full-service contracts: from road construction to maintenance and repair, so that companies will be incentivised to do a good job from the outset. I think that we should probably begin by adopting these measures, and this is what we are going to do in the near future.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Maybe we will return to this subject later on. This was a good start. Let’s now move to the studio. Everyone is waiting for us there.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. Of course.

Natalya Yuryeva: As you have seen, this is the first time that we are taking live video calls. In order to ask Vladimir Putin a question, you need to download a free application, register (you may use your social media account) and press the call button.

This application has already been downloaded dozens of thousands of times, and we have over 10,000 video calls. As usual, operators in our call centre also accept pre-recorded video questions, and of course MMS messages at the number 0440.

Tatyana Remezova, reporter at VGTRK: Over this week of work the question processing centre has received hundreds of thousands of questions for the President. Our operators at the different call centres around the country have been working practically round the clock to process all the messages coming in. As the figures stand now, we have received nearly half-a-million calls and 400,000 SMS, and the total number of messages now comes to more than 2.3 million.

Let me remind you that you can put your question by calling the free number 8 800 200 4040, and the short number for SMS messages is 04040. Among our innovations this year is that you can send your questions via this programme’s official group on the social network VKontakte. Young people, people under thirty, have been making active use of this option. We have 20,000 registered users and more than 70,000 questions. This new option for communicating with the President has turned out to be very popular.

Let me remind you that the live broadcast on our site is accompanied by sign language interpretation.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Well, Russia has traversed another difficult year with the Western sanctions and the fall in oil prices. Of course, this has all had an impact on the Russian economy. The statistics show that for the first time in many years, we have had a drop in production, wages are coming down, and people are losing their jobs. Despite these difficulties, and in spite of everything, perhaps, Russia’s economy has pulled through and is certainly not in tatters, as your colleague [US President] Barack Obama predicted it would be.

Valeriya Korableva: The last year certainly brought its share of good things too, but the specific nature of this programme means that people seldom ask about the good things, they ask about their concerns, worries, and the things that went wrong. After all, the Direct Line programmes are above all a way to take a look at the issues of greatest concern to ordinary people.

When preparing for the Direct Line, we looked through lots of questions, many of which concern the economy – not economics but the economy in a more narrow meaning. For everyone is concerned about his or her personal budget, and many people have had to rethink their spending habits and have become more thrifty.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Let’s start with questions on essential issues. We are receiving them in the form of text messages and also via the internet.

Lyudmila Safronova from Moscow is asking about prices, of course: “Last year I spent 5,000 rubles on weekly food purchases for my family. A year later, that is today, the same amount costs 10,000 rubles, or twice as much, whereas the Government claims that inflation is only 12.5 percent. Whom should I trust – the Government or supermarket till receipt?”

Vladimir Putin: You should trust both, and here’s why. There is no contradiction. The Government is talking about the average annual inflation, which was 12.9 and not 12.5 percent last year. As for the different component parts making up this figure, the rise in food prices is a very large component. Last year, and especially early last year, food prices grew considerably, by about 14 percent, if memory serves, but in the third quarter the prices of basic foodstuffs decreased. Early this year, the growth was approximately 2.2 percent, which means the Government is not deceiving us. But 12.9 percent is a lot anyway.

However, we should pay special attention to the situation with food. Frankly, we are partially responsible for the growth of food prices. Why? Because we restricted the import of foodstuffs in response to the Western sanctions against Russia. We did this knowingly, expecting this to create conditions for the development of our agricultural industry and to set the market free. And this is what we are seeing.

Overall GDP has dropped by 3.7 percent, and industry posted a drop of 3.4 percent, but the agriculture sector grew by 3 percent. This sector plays a big part in our people’s life and our economy, given that 40 million people in Russia live in rural areas.

Overall though, looking at the long term, we think this will produce a positive effect, increase our food security, and create better conditions for life and work in the countryside as the prospects improve. I not only hope but am quite confident that what we are seeing now are temporary difficulties and gradually, as local products fill the Russian market, prices will come down. They will stabilise at least, as we are seeing it starting to happen now. Overall though, of course, I realise very well that these difficulties have placed a burden on ordinary consumers.

Valeriya Korableva: Yes, here’s a question precisely on these lines. “Everyone in Russia is trying to spend less and save where they can. What are you personally trying to save on? Tamara Georgiyevna, Moscow”.

Vladimir Putin: I try to save on time, the most valuable thing that we have.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Natalya Prikhodko from Moscow has a question: “The Government’s economic officials keep telling us that we have hit the bottom in the crisis and are now on the way up again. They’ve already said this 7 times. Where is the Russian economy now as you see it?” She’s making reference to the big news conference you gave, the one at the end of 2014, it seems, 18 months ago, and she asks, “Is the Russian economy going through a black period or a white period now?”

Vladimir Putin: It’s going through a grey period. Let me explain why. The difficulties have not completely faded yet, but we do see a positive trend at work. I said just before that our GDP dropped by 3.7 percent. This year, the Government expects a slight drop to continue, but they expect growth of 1.4 percent next year. Yes, in these terms, it is difficult to say exactly where the bottom lies, but the Government’s forecasts show us the outlines – we can expect a slight drop this year, but next year will bring growth.

I have this chart here with me so that I do not mess up any numbers. I have already mentioned GDP and industrial output. Unfortunately, there are also other negative developments that impact the people of Russia. We should never forget this and work on overcoming these trends. Specifically, real household disposable income declined by 4 percent, and real wages went down even more.

However, there are also encouraging, absolutely positive developments, such as, as I have already mentioned, a 3 percent increase in agriculture. Residential construction reached an all-time high last year of over 85 million square metres. This is a record.

The unemployment rate is still low in Russia at just 5.6 percent. It has inched up, although very slightly compared to the pre-crisis period. The maternity capital has been adjusted for inflation, and now stands at 453,000 rubles.

It should be noted that despite the fact that the price of oil has almost halved, Russia still has a trade surplus, which means that we make more than we spend. This surplus stands at 146 billion rubles, which is a good result. We still have our reserves. Russia’s international reserves have now recovered to the level of early 2014 and are equal to 387 billion dollars, while the deficit is at its minimum of 2.4 percent, which is below expectations.

Valeriya Korableva: Here is another question: it is said that Russia’s national reserves will last only one year. Will it be enough to get through the crisis?

Vladimir Putin: As I have just said, reserves have recovered. I’m talking about the reserves held by the Central Bank or the so-called international reserves of the state. They have recovered to early 2014 levels, and are actually a little higher than that. We had 385.5 billion rubles in early 2014, and now Russia’s reserves are equal to 387 billion rubles. The reserve funds managed by the Government (just to remind you, we have two funds of this kind: the Reserve Fund, as it is called, and the National Welfare Fund) have shrunk, but only slightly. As of today, they hold 50 and 71 billion dollars, respectively, or 10.5 percent of the country’s GDP.

What does this mean? This means that if we keep spending them in the same way as, say, last year, the reserve funds would last at least four years, even if they are not replenished and nothing is done to save them. That said, we expect the economy to grow next year, which means that we may not have to spend as much of our reserves. Maybe, we will not even have to spend as much as we already have. This goes to say that there should be no fears in this respect.

Having reserves in the amount of 10.5 percent of GDP means that if we stopped everything, and I mean, just did nothing, and just laid around the house all day, we could live for four months, and do nothing at all. The country can just freeze for four months and will still get along.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: I hope we won’t come to a standstill.

This question of when will the crisis hit the bottom is a real concern on people’s minds. Here’s another question: “Does it worry you that economic discussions boil down to three subjects now: when we will hit the bottom, when will oil prices rise, and should we print money or is there enough in the treasury? Meanwhile, technological change keeps taking place in the world, new markets emerge, and new trade alliances such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership are forming as alternatives to the WTO. Do you not get the impression that we have turned inwards, shut ourselves off, and could end up left behind in these global economic transformations?” This is a question from Oksana Stychinskaya in Lipetsk Region.

Vladimir Putin: Let me say to Oksana and everyone else who follows our economic developments closely that this is what gets discussed at the superficial level, in the media, but this is not the case of the expert community. You hear the discussion on the three main issues you named, to print or not to print money, oil prices, and so on.

In reality though, the real discussions have a different focus. The main issues are how to attract investment, make our economy more efficient, and ensure demand, in other words, how to raise people’s incomes. This is what the Government is at work on. We discussed just recently issues such as aid for the most vulnerable population groups. This is extremely important because people who were living below the poverty line had just started to do better, but now face new difficulties. This is a worrying situation and we see it and will definitely respond.

What does the Government plan in this area? Most important is not to print money but to change our economy’s structure. This is a very complicated undertaking, but we do have some positive movement in this direction, and this can be seen, for example, in the fact that industrial production has increased.

In February, we saw the first positive change in this trend, and we also saw that high-tech exports have increased compared to exports of natural resources. So you can see that in real life we certainly do not limit ourselves to the three issues you just named.

Valeriya Korableva: One more question on the same issue: is it true that Alexei Kudrin will become head of the Centre for Strategic Research and will prepare a new economic programme?

Vladimir Putin: Maybe Mr Kudrin and I don’t meet as often as we’d like to, but we still do so regularly.

I appreciate his past contributions to our economic development; he is definitely one of our best and most valuable experts. As you know, he refused to work in the administration, but I see now that his stance has changed a bit.

Our situation is not simple, and he is willing to do his part to deal with the tasks facing the country. We have agreed that he will work more actively at the Presidential Expert Council, possibly as a deputy chair. He can also work at one of the more effective agencies, including those created in the past, such as the Centre for Strategic Research, formulating a development strategy for the immediate future, the post-2018 period and a more distant future.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Let’s move from the economy to foreign policy. The Syrian campaign has definitely been a major success, which no one can deny.

Vladimir Putin: Are the three of us the only ones who’ll do the talking?

Yevgeny Rozhkov: No, we’ll give the floor to others, too.

Valeriya Korableva: Yes, we will.

Vladimir Putin: Ok.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: So, let’s talk about the Syrian campaign and Syria, all the more so since Russia’s achievements there have been really recognised around the world.

Our Aerospace Forces’ operations have seriously undermined the potential of ISIS, but the bulk of our forces have pulled out of Syria, though some of them are still there. Is it possible that the head of this terrorist hydra will grow back?

Vladimir Putin: Such a danger always exists if you do not pay enough attention to combating terrorism. We see that many countries suffer from this scourge: the Middle East, Asia, the United States, and European countries. As for Russia, we all know about terrorism and know what losses we have suffered in this fight, and the threat remains today.

But in Syria, it is not a case of that we simply got up and left, abandoning everything. Let me note that we did indeed withdraw a substantial portion of our forces, but we made sure that after our withdrawal, the Syrian army would be in a fit state to carry out serious offensives itself, with our remaining forces’ support. And we see that after our withdrawal, the Syrian army took Palmyra and a number of other important strategic towns.

The number of towns now enforcing the ceasefire has increased since our withdrawal. We hope very much that this ceasefire, with support from whichever quarter, including from Russia, will pave the road to a peace settlement. There needs to be a political process, to get everyone to agree, sit down at the negotiating table and adopt a constitution, and then on the basis of this constitution hold early elections and find a way out of the crisis.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: How long do you think it will be until Aleppo is liberated, and then Raqqa, ISIS’s heartland?

Vladimir Putin: The problem is that the situation with Aleppo is very complicated. Aleppo is a strategically important region in Syria. It is the second-biggest city and perhaps even the country’s industrial capital. The armed opposition is present there, and so is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is internationally recognised as a terrorist organisation. It is very hard to tell who is who there. They take different tactics in behaviour and are currently all trying to strengthen their own positions.

The Syrian army does not have to try to bolster its position, because it achieved what it wanted before the ceasefire was announced, with our help, and does not have to make such attempts now, but the opposition is trying to take back what it lost. Incidentally, it is not the Syrian army that is fighting there, but for the most part it is Kurdish groups and a few other armed groups. They are fighting each other and fighting the Kurds. We are following the developments closely and will do all we can to prevent any worsening in the situation.

Valeriya Korableva: Let’s go back to the question processing centre and Natalya Yuryeva.

Natalya Yuryeva, Channel One Russia: Thank you. Judging by the video questions that we are receiving here at the Centre, wage arrears is one of the most pressing and painful issues. This issue seemed to be a thing of the past, but during the crisis it has once again become a reality. People don’t have enough money to buy food, medicine, pay for utilities or make payments on their mortgages. In fact, this problem is relevant for almost the entire country. Workers building the Moscow metro, construction workers in Khakassia, workers of Dalspetsstroy in Khabarovsk, Elektoapparat plant in the Novgorod Region, the 20th Aircraft Repair Plant in St Petersburg, Sibvodokanal in the Kemerovo region, and bread bakers in Novosibirsk – all these people are not getting their salaries.

People are not asking for anything supernatural. All they want is to get the money they earned. I propose that we watch a video question submitted by Dmitry Dudkin from Chelyabinsk.

Dmitry Dudkin: Hello, Mr Putin. I’m calling you from the city of Chelyabinsk. My name is Dmirty and I work at the Uralavtopritsep plant. We work for the defence industry and make car trailers. The problem we have is that salaries are paid three months late and not in full, only in small amounts. This is devastating. My salary isn’t that big to begin with, and I have four kids.

Vladimir Putin: Dmitry, what did you say the company name is? (Can I see him on the screen again?)

Valeriya Korableva: He can’t hear you, this is a recorded question. The company is called Uralavtopritsep.

Vladimir Putin: Well, let’s see. Uralavtopritsep should be operating in the automobile industry. This sector is among those that has suffered the most from the crisis. Sales went down sharply. What is actually happening? To keep it short: the price of oil has dropped, and this led to a decrease in the orders from the oil and gas sector, for metals companies, and farther down the chain. Revenues declined.

As I have said, unemployment is at its minimal level and is very low. I see that many companies are trying not to lay off workers. It goes without saying that not paying salaries should not be an option either. As for this particular plant, I do not know of course what is going on there, but since it is related to the automobile industry…

Generally speaking, the Government’s anti-crisis plan envisages specific support measures for industries that have suffered the most. And the automobile industry is first on that list. Over 40 billion rubles were allocated to support this sector. Of course, all the available funds were earmarked for specific purposes, but I will talk to my colleagues, including the Ministry of Industry and Trade and its minister, to make sure that they pay attention to this company. Of course, we must help this company, if there is a possibility to do so.

What else can be the problem there? The problem can be that some time ago, strangely enough, with the aim of supporting our manufacturers, we introduced the so-called utilisation fee, which increases the cost of final goods, but factoring in these support tools, should not in the final count make things worse but, on the contrary, should help them compete with foreign manufacturers.

Regarding the trailers that the plant manufactures, the utilisation fee also applies to them. It was introduced quite recently and I am not sure that this decision was thought out well enough. I believe that in this particular case the utilisation fee should be abolished for this type of product. We will definitely take this issue up with the Government. This should also help improve the company’s financial status. I promise that we will take a closer look at what is happening there.

Valeriya Korableva: It so happens that wage arrears are this year’s problem. In the regions.

Vladimir Putin: That’s right.

Valeriya Korableva: This did not happen before.

Vladimir Putin: There were arrears as well, but…

Valeriya Korableva: Not on this scale.

Vladimir Putin: No, not on this scale.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Let us take another phone call. Tatyana Remezova got it.

Tatyana, please go ahead.

Tatyana Remezova: Mr President, in addition to wage arrears, medicine is another sensitive issue. Here are some of the incoming messages, ”prices in pharmacies are like those in a jewellery stores“ from the Ivanovo Region; ”the greedy pharmacy mafia plunders defenceless people“ from Arkhangelsk. I see an incoming call on this subject, let’s try to bring it on the air. We have Dmitry from Moscow calling us.

Good afternoon, Dmitry, you are live on the air, please go ahead with your question.

Dmitry, Moscow: Good afternoon, Mr President. I have a question about medicine. My parents have complained to me that pharmacies do not carry inexpensive domestic medicines. Recently, I had a chance to see it for myself. Why is that pharmacies sell only expensive imported medicines? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I do not think that there are only expensive imported drugs on pharmacy shelves (by the way, some people prefer it that way). There are Russian-made medicines as well. Several years ago, we started a national pharmaceutical industry development programme. I am not sure about the exact number, but we set aside about 148 billion roubles to it. This year, we will release an additional 16 billion roubles.

What is happening in this sphere? First, I want to reassure you that, despite all the problems, the Government maintains constant focus on this issue, even if it may appear that no one is paying attention to it.

So, what is happening there? Indeed there is a certain decline in the production of cheap domestic drugs, about 2.5 percent, but this reduction affects only the selection of drugs. There are no reductions with regard to any chemical formulas, meaning that alternative drugs are becoming available. This part of inexpensive products, especially when it comes to critical drugs, is regulated by the state. In today’s circumstances, when personal incomes are down in our country, the Government is implementing price controls. If, overall, the prices for these life-saving drugs rose by 8.8 percent in the past year, the prices for cheap medicines rose, I may be off with the number, but, I think, they rose by 16 percent.

What is this all about? The manufacturers claim that even such price increases are not enough to cover their costs. The fact that the Government limits price hikes and makes adjustments to rising prices causes manufacturers to lose money as they try to manufacture these medicines. Why? Because even though these are domestically produced drugs, their components (the so-called substance) are largely imported en masse from China, for instance. Given the exchange rate, this component cannot be compensated for by increasing prices.

In this regard, the Government has two ways of dealing with this problem: either to subsidise the industry – but here we need to make sure that we have enough funds in the budget to do so – or remove price restrictions to some extent. Perhaps, other solutions will be found within the next 45–60 days. In any case, the Government has been tasked to resolve this problem within the next 45–60 days. That’s what I have to say on this issue.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: We have pharmaceuticals representatives here in the studio. Let’s ask them to choose between continued subsidising and price deregulation.

Vladimir Putin: Right here, in this studio?

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Yes, right here. Nailya, please introduce our next guest.

Nailya Asker-zade, VGTRK: One of our guests is Vitaly Oleinikov, co-owner of a pharmaceutical plant in the Samara Region, which produces popular medicines like Analgin and Bromhexine, and he claims that their medicines are of good quality. Let’s give him the floor.

Mr Oleinikov, what would you like to say?

Vitaly Oleinikov: Good afternoon. I’m Vitaly Oleinikov from the Ozon pharmaceutical plant, the city of Zhigulevsk, Samara Region.

To begin with, I don’t want to try to justify myself, as my colleagues and I have been working for the past 13 years to produce inexpensive and moderately priced medicines. We have been doing this honestly, and I can assure you of the high quality of our medicines.

My children and I personally take medicines produced at our plant, and I recommend them to my friends and acquaintances. Unfortunately, Mr President was right when he said that a considerable number of our medicines have recently become unprofitable, and that we had to stop producing some of them.

The root cause is that we have to buy not just raw materials, but also accessory parts and equipment, abroad for foreign currency. You all know about the exchange rates. But the retail price ceilings have been fixed by the government and haven’t changed since 2009. What surprises me most in this respect is that the ceiling prices are different for Russian and foreign medicines. Sometimes…

Nailya Asker-zade: Mr Oleinikov, please remember that brevity is the sister of talent.

Vitaly Oleinikov: I can’t stop; I need to unload, really. Sometimes foreign medicines are 20 times more expensive than Russian medicines, don’t you see? Why is that?

The prices of raw materials have increased. Raw materials make up to 70 percent of the cost of cheap pills, and the pricing has doubled. But we still have to sell these pills at prices fixed in 2009. Who would sell at a loss? No one would. And so these pills are not produced, and their place at drugstores is taken by more expensive medicines, usually foreign ones. We’ve tried to draw attention to this problem more than once.

Nailya is stopping me, but let me take this opportunity to ask you please to do something about this issue. It is really a serious problem. I ask you first of all to give us the same conditions as our foreign partners, and second, this might sound a bit unexpected, but I think that price limits for the cheapest medicines in the low-cost segment should be abolished so as to encourage production of these medicines. You spoke about a compensation mechanism, but this is not a market mechanism as we see it, and it is hard to say just how it would be actually implemented. If we abolish the price limits, we would see cheap medicines on the pharmacy shelves, more of them, and our own pharmaceuticals industry would start doing better. If things continue as they are, our factories will shut down altogether.

Nailya Asker-zade: Thank you very much. Your question is clear.

Vladimir Putin: If prices rise too fast, the medicines will no longer be cheap. We need to find a balanced solution. I gave this instruction and the Government promised to find a solution within 6–8 weeks. We have just looked at the possible options for fixing this situation. Probably, we do need to find a balance here. But we cannot deny the fact that some companies really are working at the very limits of profitability, as our colleague said quite frankly just now. This is the reality. Costs in this cheap segment are around 50 rubles, isn’t this right?

Valeriya Korableva: We have an interesting SMS on just this subject: which medicines does the President take, imported or locally made?

Vladimir Putin: I try not to reach the point where I have to take medicines. I make an effort to play sport and lead a healthy lifestyle.

Valeriya Korableva: But if you do have to take medicines?

Vladimir Putin: If it comes to that, it’s usually a case of catching a cold or something, and I make sure I get my vaccinations in time, before the flu season starts.

Valeriya Korableva: But if there’s really no choice?

Vladimir Putin: Then I take what the doctor gives, a mixture of foreign and Russian medicines, no doubt, but it’s a very basic assortment. I think they are precisely the basic medicines you find in the low-cost segment.

Valeriya Korableva: Let’s continue with the studio and change the subject. I give the floor to Olga Ushakova.

Olga Ushakova: Thank you.

Mr President, I suggest that we return to foreign policy. Here in the studio today we have Andrei Bystritsky, head of the Valdai Discussion Club. I think he has a question for you on foreign policy.

Andrei Bystritsky: Good afternoon.

Just last September, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was considered your friend and Turkey almost a strategic partner. You opened the new building of the Cathedral Mosque in Moscow together. And now the friendship has ended abruptly, turning into what – enmity? Looking back, Ukraine, then Moldova, Georgia, and Turkey, other countries – it seems like we will soon find ourselves surrounded by enemies. Could Russia develop successfully in these circumstances?

Vladimir Putin: We are not surrounded by enemies and we will not end up in that position. This is absolutely out of the question. We have good, friendly relations with most countries. I am not even talking about effective organisations such as the SCO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is expanding by adding great powers, and our integration associations, the Eurasian Economic Union, BRICS and so on.

On the whole, we have good relations with our neighbours. We see Turkey as a friend, and the Turkish people as friendly people with whom we will definitely continue building good-neighbourly and friendly relations.

We have problems with certain political leaders whose behaviour is less than adequate as far as Russia is concerned, and we react appropriately. But we are still operating smoothly, as you can see, without any sudden moves. We have confidence in this policy of responding to any unfriendly actions towards Russia, because we should definitely respond, otherwise they will end up walking all over us. We do have a recent history of just that, and we will not allow a return to it. Yet, even keeping our interests in mind, we will certainly develop our relations with all our partners, including our neighbours.

Valeriya Korableva: Mr Putin, there is something else people are interested to know. Last year, you said you would come to the rescue of a drowning Obama. If you found Poroshenko and Erdogan drowning now, whom would you save first? Varya Kuznetsova, 12 years old. (Applause.)

Vladimir Putin: Varya, you have put me on the spot. I do not know what to say. I would say, you cannot save someone who has decided to drown. But of course we are ready to lend a helping hand and friendship to any of our partners, if they want to take it.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Turkey used to be the most popular destination for Russian holidaymakers. There were many charter flights to Turkey. Now most people go to Crimea. I suggest we switch to Crimea for our first live report with Nikolai Dolgachev.

Nikolai Dolgachev: We are now on Tuzla Island in the Republic of Crimea, where the construction site of the Kerch Strait Bridge is located. This mammoth structure is already taking a shape. It will be the longest and largest bridge in Russia, 19 kilometres.

Construction works are taking place at eight contemporaneous locations, including by sea, the Kerch Peninsula, the Taman Peninsula and Tuzla. All these locations will eventually be incorporated into a single transit passage and Crimea will be connected to the mainland, a much-anticipated moment for all the Crimean people.

Here with me is Yury Beskov, head of technical service. The works continue as we speak. What is happening?

Yury Beskov: Right now, we are using a concrete pump to fill the second support of the passage across the Kerch Strait with concrete. The first support is ready. As of today, some 500 piles have been driven into the ground. Here you can see metal pipe piles.

Nikolai Dolgachev: Do these figures show how deep the piles will be driven into the ground?

Yury Beskov: Yes, it is an intermediate value. The maximum depth will be around 90 metres.

Nikolai Dolgachev: Let’s have a look at the map and find where we are to understand the scale. This is the 19-kilometre stretch and where are we right now?

Yury Beskov: We are now right there, at the fourth location, Tuzla Island.

Nikolai Dolgachev: Is this the middle of the bridge?

Yury Beskov: Yes, it is the equator of the construction.

Nikolai Dolgachev: Thank you very much.

Tuzla sends greetings to Moscow. Good afternoon, colleagues. Good afternoon, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Nikolai Dolgachev: People from across Crimea came here to Tuzla Island to ask their questions. Please introduce yourself.

Olga Kuzenkova: Good afternoon, Mr President. Olga Kuzenkova, Palmira Palace, Yalta.

We, the people of Crimea, are really looking forward to the bridge opening. Crimea can and must be self-sufficient. As a representative of the travel industry, I would like to point out that we are now very busy preparing for the high season.

Crimean resorts offer a high level of hospitality and service. I would like to invite everybody from anywhere in our huge country to Crimea for rest and relaxation.

Vladimir Putin: Your question, please.

Olga Kuzenkova: Perhaps I will sound nosy but my question is: Mr President, when are you going to Crimea on holiday?

Vladimir Putin: I have not thought about it yet but I will definitely go to Crimea at some point, at least for several days, for some R&R as well. Thank you for the invitation.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: I would like to ask, if I may, about Turkey, since it has been mentioned several times as a tourist destination. I have vacationed there more than once with my family. The same goes for people I know. There are also a lot of questions about Egypt. So the question is when? When, in your opinion, will air service with Egypt and charter flights to Turkey resume? When will it happen?

Vladimir Putin: First of all, I would like to respond about Crimea. I was happy to see how the construction of the bridge is progressing. I must say in all honesty that usually there is no shortage of candidates to build construction projects like this. But in this case, we could hardly find a company to take on this project, mostly because of the limited financing, as well as a number of other restrictions that contractors can face.

Nevertheless, we found a contractor that has gotten started and is successful. It went through the required selection procedures that were very strict, since the cost issue was at stake. The related Government agencies even succeeded in lowering the final price. I hope everything will be well done on schedule.

As for trips to Turkey and Egypt, it didn’t depend on us. While the reasons behind the restrictions were different in these two cases, the results were the same. Why different? In Egypt, the current authorities are fighting radicals, but it’s not always easy. We see what’s happening there. Hostilities take place on the Sinai Peninsula almost daily. The former government, which was removed from power by the current president, and its supporters are quite active in this respect.

Against this background we have no right not to tell people that visiting this country could be dangerous. What could be the possible solution? Together with the Egyptian authorities we must find a way to screen passengers, luggage, on-board meals and aircraft maintenance personnel so as to make the stay, arrival and departure of our citizens, including by air, safe and secure. So far, we have not been able to find a solution of this kind with our Egyptian colleagues, although Russian special services and law enforcement agencies are working with our Egyptian friends on this issue. This was the first point I wanted to make.

My second point is about Turkey. We are seeing a similar picture here, although, we believe that the current Turkish authorities are not so much fighting radicals as they are cooperating with them. However, the country’s domestic issues also make us consider security. A de facto civil war is underway in the south of the country.

We are trying not to notice it, and the international community pretends that it is not taking place. But this is a fact. Heavy weapons, tanks, artillery and so forth are being used. In addition, Turkey suffers from terrorist attacks almost every week.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: It happens all the time.

Vladimir Putin: Who can guarantee that it won’t happen to Russian tourists? We know for example that in countries like, say, Tunisia, some tourists came under fire right at the beach.

By the way, I’m more than sure that the Turkish authorities will strive to provide security for tourists, including from Russia, since tourism accounts for a substantial portion of budget revenues in this country. Last year, almost five million Russian tourists visited Turkey.

I have no doubt that they will try. But whether they will be able to actually do it, is another matter. For this reason, just like with Egypt, we had to tell our people that vacationing in Turkey is now dangerous.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: This means that we will have to spend our vacations in Crimea. Everything is fine there.

Vladimir Putin: Crimea and the Caucasus. There are also many other countries in the world. Why are these two so attractive? I suppose they are cheaper and not too far away. But still, there are many other countries.

Many countries are now trying to reduce the cost of a stay and lower rates. Russian companies are looking for cheaper holiday transport. We have to work on this.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Crimea is waiting for another opportunity to ask a question. Nikolai, we are waiting for your question on another subject.

Nikolai Dolgachev: Yes, there are questions. Go ahead.

Yulia Yeremenko: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Yulia Yeremenko: My name is Yulia Yeremenko. I am a student at Crimean Federal University, a resident of the Hero City Kerch. At present, electricity is supplied for only several hours a day, but we are not put off by this, because our children have started playing less with their electronic devices, reading more books and communicating with their parents. However, in spite of this, we are looking forward to the commissioning of the energy bridge. Tell us please when this will happen. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Regarding power distribution, just three or four days ago, Energy Minister Alexander Novak updated me on the progress on the energy bridge project.

As we remember, two lines have been laid. They are now in service. Today, a third line is to be commissioned. This is an additional 200 MW. On the whole, this is nearing a power transmission volume that was provided from Ukrainian territory. I believe a fourth line will be put into operation in two or three weeks at the latest. This is another 200 MW. This will add up to 800 [MW] along the energy bridge between the Caucasus and Crimea. This will fully meet the demand that was once met by Ukraine.

There was a problem related to the fact that since power supplies previously came from the north and reached Kerch, say, and other regions on the leftover principle, the grids here are not of very good quality. The Energy Ministry thought about this. I hope it did, because the Minister briefed me on this. They are commissioning corresponding substations and modernising the grid component. I hope everything will be done in a proper manner.

I would like to remind you, however, that in 2017, I believe, another two units should be put into operation there, that’s over 400 MW, and in 2018, another two units, each over 400 MW. In other words, Crimea will not simply have sufficient power supply but will be well-positioned to develop its economy and its social sphere.

Valeriya Korableva: Mr President, we have an urgent report here. At the very start, we spoke about roads. So Omsk officials have just announced that they will repair 21 roads by May 1.

Incidentally, Omsk is not the only region. There are also problems in Volgograd, Chelyabinsk and Saratov.

Vladimir Putin: I hope the heads of these regions will also pay attention or we will definitely talk to them on this issue, as we will discuss it with the Russian Government, the Finance Ministry and the Transport Ministry regarding the issue of this extra ruble from the excise tax, which was supposed – or, to be more precise, which the Finance Ministry wanted to impound for the federal budget. I believe that they should be given to regional, road funds specifically and that this spending should be designated accordingly. We will see how it will work.

It is cold there now, right?

Nikolai Dolgachev: The weather is windy today although yesterday it was very warm. The weather changes day to day.

Vladimir Putin: So you invite us to go spend a holiday there, but can you guarantee that everything will be all right?

Yulia Yeremenko: We can, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.

Valeriya Korableva: Thank you, Crimea.

While developing domestic tourism and creating new infrastructure, we must not forget about the environment: 2017 has been declared the Year of the Environment. We have ecologists here in the studio. Let us give them an opportunity to ask their questions.

Vladimir Putin: By all means.

Valeriya Korableva: Vera, they are in your section. Please take over.

Vera Krasova: Indeed, there are many questions concerning the ecology, and environmental activist Eldar Neverov is willing to ask one of them. Good afternoon, please ask your question.

Eldar Neverov: Good afternoon, Mr President. I am Eldar Neverov, a businessman specialising in garbage and secondary raw materials. I am extremely worried that we have not yet created a comprehensive solid waste recycling system. In particular, we have not introduced separate waste collection in the current meaning of this procedure, when valuable secondary raw materials are sorted out from non-recyclable waste. As a result, our landfills are growing larger with non-degradable waste, which sometimes leads to environmental disasters.

So, maybe all of us – the authorities, business and the public – should roll our sleeves up and clean the country?

Vladimir Putin: Look, there is one of your colleagues, nodding in agreement. Give him the microphone, please.

A. Repik: Good afternoon, Mr President. I believe that Eldar has proposed a good idea. Thank you for declaring the Year of the Environment. Of course, we are waiting for the Year of the Entrepreneur, but I think we can make our country cleaner. The task is within our powers.

Vladimir Putin: Anyone else wishing to speak on the matter?

Remark: Good afternoon, Mr President. I am a member of parliament representing the Astrakhan Region. We in Astrakhan are deeply worried about the situation in the lower reaches of the Volga. We are grateful to you for declaring the Year of the Environment. We joined hands with active members from the Russian Popular Front to stage a campaign in defence of the lower reaches of the Volga, which are the spawning ground for fish, the source of fresh water and are otherwise important for agriculture.

Mr President, I believe that the hydraulic structures in the Volga-Kama basin have not been adjusted to supply water properly, which mostly affects those who live along the Volga. I have found support among my colleagues in the State Duma and the United Russia party. We are collecting signatures and have held a campaign in defence of the Volga. We have collected over 50,000 signatures under a letter we plan to send to you. As of now, this is the key priority, and even the housing and utility problems have receded to second place. Absolutely everyone, both party members and the politically uncommitted, have supported my initiative. Mr President, this is really very important.

I am asking you to personally monitor the adjustment of the hydraulic structures in the Volga-Kama basin. Shallow waters affect navigation and the spawning of fish, and hence life. Water is life.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I agree.

I will say a few words about the Volga and our other great rivers. Indeed, there is a problem, and it requires special attention on behalf of the regional and federal authorities.

This includes shipping traffic. In certain localities, I am not sure how it is going to be this time, but in the past few years a boat would arrive at a certain point, the passengers would disembark, then take a bus to cover that portion of their itinerary, and then re-embark on the boat, because the water was too shallow for the boat to negotiate it.

It is necessary to clean river beds. We must also pay attention to hydraulic facilities, which also pose problems. We are not going to discuss them now, but these problems have remained unresolved for years, if not decades.

Of course, it’s also a matter of the purity of water in the Volga delta, which is home to some wonderful and unusual fauna, including sturgeon. Do you know how wide the Volga delta is? 290 kilometres. It is one of the world’s largest deltas comparable to the Mississippi. This is a universe of its own, and, of course, it needs our special attention.

Now, with regard to waste. It is indeed a problem. Our country is faced with a waste problem. We are producing about 5.4 or 5.6 billion tonnes of waste yearly, and only half of it is recycled. The rest is simply buried. That second half, which goes into the ground or is simply dumped somewhere, is out of control and has become a highly criminalised business.

In this regard, it is imperative to improve regulations and raise the awareness of the regional authorities to this problem. Of course, the public should monitor this, because sometimes people have to live near such dumps, and their lives become unbearable. I would like to ask the Russian Popular Front to focus on this. Given the high levels of criminal activity in this area, it is indeed front-line work without exaggeration.

Now, with regard to these plants and what needs to be done. A law was adopted in November or December 2014. However, these plants can be built, and they will work efficiently, and everything will be economically feasible if the so-called environmental fee is collected. This fee will be collected beginning in 2017. Why? Precisely because of our ongoing economic difficulties, so as to not put too much of a burden on the manufacturers, so that they do not cut jobs and can pay employee salaries in a timely fashion. There are many problems regarding these most sensitive and most important areas for our citizens.

The Government crunched the numbers and realised that if we ask them to pay a disposal fee on top of everything else, the industry will find it extremely difficult to comply, but it should be introduced in the early 2017 anyway. There are three ways to go about it (I will be done with this shortly).

First, those who produce the waste, the large and self-contained enterprises, can build recycling plants themselves.

Second, if a waste-producing enterprise is unable to take care of its waste, it can pool its resources with other enterprises of a particular region and hire an operator.

Third, if doing so does not make any economic sense for the private sector, because the payback period is too long, the state itself should go ahead and build such plants. However, the issue here is about complex waste, such as batteries, industrial waste, television sets, refrigerators, and so on.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: We’ve been working for an hour now, and it wouldn’t be fair to stay only in the studio. We’ve already had 2.5 million calls. Let’s hear another call.

Let’s cross to the question processing centre and Tatyana Remezova. Tatyana, you have the floor.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you, colleagues.

Mr President, we know that you are no fan of questions about your personal life and make a point of not discussing this subject, but we have so many questions of this sort that we cannot simply ignore it altogether. For some reason, this subject particularly interests your fellow St Petersburg people, so let’s try hearing a call live now from Alexandra Kozlova in Gatchina.

Good afternoon, we’re listening to you.

Alexandra Kozlova: Hello, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Hello.

Alexandra Kozlova: I have a question about your personal life. The newspapers wrote recently that your former wife Lyudmila remarried. When will you present to us a new First Lady?

Vladimir Putin: Lyudmila and I see each other sometimes, not often, but we do meet, and we have very good relations, perhaps even better now than they were before. I know that all is well with her. As for what the newspapers write, that is another issue. But I know that she is happy with her life and all is well. I am also happy, and all is well with me too.

I’m not sure that we ought to turn the spotlight on the matters you raised just now. You never know how they might affect the exchange rate or oil prices. Speaking seriously though, people elect deputies to the State Duma and elect a president in order to have them work.

The things you talk about, matters concerning personal life, do interest people of course, and I have long since learned to live with this and I understand this interest, but these things are nonetheless not of paramount importance. Perhaps the moment will come when I will be able to satisfy your curiosity. Thank you for your question.

Valeriya Korableva: Well, let’s talk about doping now.

Vladimir Putin: About what?

Valeriya Korableva: About doping, a sensitive issue. We have always been proud of the success of our athletes. They were recognized leaders in many sports for many years but now we are being told that many victories were achieved dishonestly. We have both fans and athletes in our studio. Let’s give them an opportunity to speak their mind.

Vladimir Putin: Ok.

Valeriya Korableva: Olga, let your section have the floor.

Olga Ushakova: Yes, Valeriya, you noted quite rightly that this issue is worrying not only representatives of the sports community but also millions of fans all over the country because sport is a unifying force, and we do have people of different walks of life here today. Many are interested in this issue. Thus, businessman Yan Berezin arrived here today with a question about sport rather than business.

Yan Berezin: Good afternoon, Mr President. I am Yan Berezin from Moscow, the Leaders’ Club.

It is perfectly obvious that there are some things that unite all of us although we are different, and sport can play a key role in this. We are always glad to see our athletes, we cheer for them, our stars, for their victories when they represent Russia in the international arena.

To be honest, this outrageous scandal over meldonium is infuriating. It has been going on for several months now. It is still unclear what it will lead to. They are going to deprive our athletes of their status and their careers may even come to an end. What will then happen with the sports leaders of our country? What will happen – maybe some punishment? Honestly, I speak from my heart, as it goes.

Olga Ushakova: No, from the bottom of my heart.

Vladimir Putin: Is Mutko giving you English lessons? (Applause.)

Yan Berezin: God forbid, no.

Vladimir Putin: You do not take lessons from him do you?

Yan Berezin: No.

Vladimir Putin: As regards this meldonium, so much has been said about it already. It has never been listed as a doping agent. It is absolutely certain that meldonium does not enhance results. It simply keeps the heart muscle in good shape during heavy training loads but for some reason it was suddenly put on the list.

Basically, meldonium was invented back in the Soviet Union, in Latvia, as we now know. I did not know this myself before. The inventor never considered it doping – it is used in medicine on a large scale, by the way.

Most important, when it was included, there was no reliable information on how quickly it leaves the body. I think now WADA has adjusted its decisions– literally yesterday or the day before, recently anyway. I do not believe this decision had political connotations although meldonium was used only by athletes from Eastern Europe, former Soviet Union countries, and Eastern Europe in general because it originated there, was produced and is still being produced, but it has never been regarded as doping.

I don’t think there’s a political subtext here, and we can see this in the fact that WADA has adjusted its position. As far as I know, our colleagues from this international anti-doping organisation are now looking at the possibility of carrying out clinical tests to see how fast the body eliminates this substance. The first study shows that different people eliminate it at different speeds.

The results of these tests could lead to some practical conclusions, including with regard to individual athletes. I hope that these decisions will be objective, but this does not mean that we should sit on our laurels and have a chuckle over this whole affair. No, what we need to do now is to improve our work with the international organisations and make swift responses to their demands. Of course, we need to pay attention to our athletes’ health and to ensuring fair competition, and giving the fans the pleasure of seeing this fair competition. Of course, we must make sure for certain that athletes who have nothing to do with this doping scandal, and this is the case for the majority of our athletes, are not penalised in any way.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Let’s hear from our athletes then, all the more so as they certainly deserve it. They are in Olga Pautova’s sector. Olga, you have the floor.

Olga Pautova: We have invited here to the studio Yury Borzakovsky, the head coach of Russia’s track and field team. He was many-times European champion, world champion, and so far the only Russian runner to win an Olympic gold medal too. Yury, you have the floor.

Yury Borzakovsky: Good afternoon, Mr President.

The anti-doping association has no problems with the majority of our athletes, whose consciences are certainly clear. But all of our track and field athletes, all of them, have been barred from taking part in the Olympics because of others’ faults.

The International Association (IAAF) will come back to this issue very soon, in May, we’ve heard. In any case, my team is asking what we should do? Should we be training now, training for what, preparing for the Olympics? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I understand your athletes. We all love them and wish them the best results. It is no exaggeration to say that every sports fan knows them by name. Of course, they are in a difficult situation right now, but we should be ready for everything, it seems to me, since you are asking my opinion.

This is all the more so as, like I just said, we know now that WADA is re-examining some of its policies on the use of meldonium and is studying the clinical properties not only of the product itself but also the way it leaves the body. Let’s wait and see.

Of course, we will fight to make sure that the decisions are fair. The Russian Sports Ministry and our sports organisations are working with good international-level lawyers on this and are studying all aspects of the issue.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Let us now talk about something else that concerns everyone – which is no exaggeration – the housing and utilities issues.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, go ahead please.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: People complain that they have to spend a significant portion of their incomes on that. We have a lot of such messages coming in through the VKontakte social networking site: “We are greatly concerned about housing and utilities bills and additional charges.” They must be referring primarily to major repairs. It is a really big topic of discussion today: “When will you enforce some order and put a stop to the endless extortions?”

There is one more question: “Previously, they explained the price hikes by the rising oil price, but now, when the price of oil is falling, prices continue to grow. Our parents tell us that when they were young, housing prices remained unchanged for decades. Why not curb utility rates now?” Lyudmila Kamyshnikova from the Moscow Region asks.

Vladimir Putin: Essentially, there are three questions: utility bills, additional charges and major repairs. Do you want me to go through all of them?

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Yes, I think people are interested.

Vladimir Putin: Ok.

First, about the stability in housing issues and utilities bills that Soviet people enjoyed in the Soviet Union. Life was very different then. True, there was stability, but I can assure you – we are now seeing this, it has become clear – that this industry was systematically and horribly underfunded even in Soviet times.

They did keep the fees low, but the Government failed to invest the required money, and gradually our housing stock was ruined. On the other hand, they did invest money, even if not very effectively, in the defence industry, for example. The number of different types of Soviet aircraft, warships and other weapons was infinite, immeasurable. Did they absolutely have to do that? Many experts now say it was expensive and mostly unnecessary.

So where has that policy led us to? Let me recall. It led us to a situation where soap and sugar were only available with coupons. In those conditions, people did not even notice that they lost the country. Was it good? Of course not. Still, even today, before taking any decisions in this area, one very sensitive to people, I completely agree with you, we must certainly think about people’s incomes and the industry’s requirements, and they must be balanced.

What is happening with tariffs? Last year, tariffs were to be increased by 8.7 percent on average. What I’m going to say right now is important. The tariffs actually went up by 8.5 percent on average. It was decided that in July 2016 tariffs should go up by another 4 percent on average. The regions can decide for themselves whether they should refrain from raising tariffs at all or increase them above the average rate all the way up to 10 percent.

However, the regional governors can decide on this issue only after coordinating it with the municipal council deputies, so that elected officials must consent to any increase above the 4 percent level. This will only be possible if the additional increase is needed to finance repairs or investment, for example, to prepare utilities for the winter, to keep power stations and heat generators from falling apart and maintaining them in good working condition.

There are 24,000 municipal entities in Russia. Of this total, over 600 opted to exceed this 4-percent increase. This is just about 3 percent of the population. There are people elsewhere as well. Let me reiterate that consent by the local deputies and an agreement with the governor is required for taking such decisions.

Making sure that the tariffs are transparent is very important. While this tariff is regulated by the state, additional services are not subject to regulation. More on that later. In order for the tariff to be transparent, the Government needs to complete the work on making all information on the tariff structure publicly available, so that anyone in Russia can understand what he or she pays for and how much. I think that moving in this direction will also enable us to influence this very tariff.

As for additional services, I am talking about maintenance of entrances to residential buildings, and the like. As per applicable laws, these tariffs are not regulated by the state. How should this be done? People should hold meetings to determine the scope of services they would like to receive and how much they are willing to pay for them. If people are unable to do it, it would be the task and responsibility of the municipality.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Capital repairs…

Vladimir Putin: Before we move to capital repairs, let me say one more thing that you know all too well. However, I still think that it should be highlighted again. A law was adopted and enacted a long time ago, which entitles families who pay over 22 percent of their household income for housing and utilities to apply for subsidies.

I just wanted to remind people, especially given the 4-percent decline in real disposable income, that if you meet this criterion, you can apply for a subsidy. The numbers are substantial, and today, 30 million people have applied for and are receiving these subsidies through the social services. The regions spend 300 billion rubles on this programme. Let me reiterate that if there are people not covered by this system, they can apply for these subsidies.

Now regarding capital repairs. This is also a very important and sensitive area for the people. I know that this irks a lot of people and there is a reason why it does. The Constitutional Court has upheld the Government’s decision but even if it is correct, it is important to take into account people’s real financial status, their disposable income and, of course, the industry’s real needs, and these needs are huge.

We have over 2 billion square metres of residential space in the country, I do not remember exactly, maybe 2.4 billion, and 1 billion is in need of repairs. Importantly, all of this is in need of repairs but this 1 billion is in need of urgent repair. And do you know how much we currently repair each year? 50–70 million. If we go on at this rate, the amount of housing that is unsafe for human occupancy will grow exponentially. Disaster will strike sooner or later.

Go to certain countries – I will not name them so as not to offend them – big, large, great countries. You come and you see that [some] buildings are falling apart. I was so surprised and I asked why. Because it is impossible to evict those who live there but who do not contribute to building’s repairs; the owners do not want [to contribute] either. Buildings are simply falling apart. We can definitely not allow this to happen.

To reiterate, extreme caution should be exercised. Look, 97 billion rubles were raised last year, but only 25 [billion rubles] worth of contracts were signed. The remaining 70 billion ended up “in limbo.” This means we were not ready for this. All of this should be done very carefully and the amount [of the levy] should, of course, be commensurate with personal incomes. The Government should, of course, take a very careful and balanced approach, without any abrupt moves.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: This is a controversial issue, to say the least. Let us discuss it with panellists.

Nailya, go ahead please.

Nailya Asker-zade: Many people are also worried about the property tax issue. This applies both to individuals and to legal entities. We have a Moscow-based entrepreneur in our studio with years of experience under his belt. Sergei Demin.

Mr Demin, your question please.

Sergei Demin: Good afternoon, Mr President. This is the third crisis for me. I am an entrepreneur. I have been in business since the 1990s. I have waited eight years for an opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to you for the year 2008, when the decisions that you made ensured that the economy would be saved and would not slip back into 1998 again, but would survive and develop further.

Vladimir Putin: Because you experienced all of this firsthand I should point out that back then the crisis was far tougher. As I said, our present fall in the GDP is significant, 3.7 percent, but in 2008 it was 10.7. And of course, there was very serious concern. Today, thank God, the situation is not so bad but we need to restore steady growth.

I am sorry, please, go on.

Sergei Demin: Yes, and another thing, Mr President. My wife, Tatyana, asked me to say thank you for your work.

Vladimir Putin: Well, I wish her the best of health. Please thank her for her approval. Thank you very much.

Sergei Dyomin: Mr President, the cadastral value of real estate and land has grown sharply in the past few years. This has been an additional burden – and a heavy one – for enterprises, especially industrial ones. Today, the cadastral value is often above the market. This is evidenced by the many cases won in court by entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the funds spent on legal fees could be invested into the development and upgrading of production.

Moreover, private individuals are also in for hard times, because taxes on real estate will be calculated based on its cadastral value. My question is: could you review, and, if possible, support the following two proposals? First, to impose a moratorium on increasing the cadastral value of real estate and land for the next five years and match the cadastral value with the market value in the near future, involving entrepreneurs, for instance Delovaya Rossiya and others, in this work, including owners. Appraisers should by all means be responsible for their performance. Now they bear no responsibility for overrated cadastral value.

And the second proposal: considering, as you put it, the current economic difficulties, to increase tax exempt square areas for citizens: for a room, from 10 to 15 metres; a flat, from 20 to 50 square metres; and a suburban house, from 50 to 100 square metres. Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: The transfer to cadastral values was initiated by some regions of the Russian Federation. This is not even a Government initiative. The reason is, in some regions, including Moscow, the municipal authorities got the impression that they do not receive enough revenue, which they could and should receive for spending on general municipal needs. Thus, the Moscow authorities considered the available appraisal to be underrated, as a result of which they received almost nothing per year from large retail chain, and this is certainly unfair.

Naturally, Muscovites that are not engaged in business have the right to ask the city authorities: why do you allow this to happen? But it goes without saying that this process should lead to more justice rather than overreaction in the opposite direction. I agree with you on this point. This applies to the business community and to individual citizens, and this is why they are worried about it. Is it possible to increase the tax-exempt square area? Probably it is, we must think about it. I cannot answer this question as regards specific figures off the top of my head, but we can and should consider this issue.

As for the moratorium, we can discuss it too, but the issue is that this system should be implemented by 2020, as the regions are ready. Actually, this is a relatively soft solution, and it has only been implemented in very few federal territories, only in one or two, maybe three regions. The rest should be ready by 2020, which is the essence of the moratorium. Of course, we can discuss setting criteria for judging the regions’ readiness, which will again amount to a moratorium. The regions must themselves decide whether they are ready or not. This is the current proposal.

As for attracting the business community to determining the cadastral value, the trouble is that currently this is the responsibility of private companies, whereas I believe that this should be done by government agencies. The reason is that unfortunately, these private companies cannot be held accountable for the results of their cadastral appraisal. The situation is paradoxical, as I have seen in many questions I read yesterday, when two adjacent and similar flats receive different cadastral appraisals so that one of them appears to be many times more expensive than the other. This is not just unfair but foolish.

Therefore, we need to bring all this into conformity with common sense. We would do well to adjust this work so that government agencies are held accountable for the results of cadastral appraisal. But this also means that we should create a system in which people will be able to protect their rights, not only in courts, which usually takes a long time, but also out of court, that is, administratively.

Also, I’d like to point out that the people who are entitled to housing benefits enjoy them irrespective of whether their flats were evaluated by the Bureau of Technical Inventory, in accordance with their cadastral or market value.

There are interesting elements in your proposals, which we should definitely take into account. Thank you.

Valeriya Korableva: Mr Putin, the questions come not only from adults but also from children as you could see from the question about saving drowning people. I have several short questions from Klassny Zhurnal, a national magazine published for children and by children. I will quote some of them. First. What three wishes would you make if you caught a goldfish like in the Russian fairytale? Anzhela Solomennikova, 11, Perm Territory.

Vladimir Putin: Eleven?

Valeriya Korableva: Eleven.

Vladimir Putin: Anzhela?

Valeriya Korableva: Anzhela.

Vladimir Putin: I hope Anzhela can hear us now. Three wishes, let me think. You know, in the long run it is better not to rely on fairy-tale characters. There was a song in the Soviet times, remember? “Nobody will help us, neither God nor the tsar nor a hero.” We must build our fate with our own hands. If we keep waiting around for a miracle we may end up undoing all the magic just like in Pushkin’s fairytale. It is better to roll up your sleeves and work hard.

Valeriya Korableva: They are kids. They still believe in miracles.

Next question: I am a child prodigy. I am eight years old. I am in the fifth grade and go to chemistry classes with eighth-grade students. I speak English and build robots. Why am I not allowed to go to educational camps like Sirius or Artek due to my young age? When I am old enough it will not be interesting anymore. Can you as President consider this in the programme for gifted children? Ilya Rayevsky, Yaroslavl Region.

Vladimir Putin: Ilya, this is clearly an omission that indicates that the organisers have never been child prodigies. We will change that.

Valeriya Korableva: Next question: why do grown-ups have two days-off a week while children have none? We have classes on Saturdays and do homework on Sundays. This is not fair. Denis Ryabchinsky, 11, Veliky Novgorod.

Vladimir Putin: It is fair because you are better than us and you can stand the workload and absorb much more knowledge. This is the truth of life. But there is undoubtedly a problem.

Speaking more seriously, the problem is that children’s workload is often incommensurable to what is prescribed or should be prescribed as acceptable by child psychologists. This is the perspective we should take on this issue.

Valeriya Korableva: If you had your knowledge tested would you prefer the National Final School Exam (EGE) or an oral exam? Yelizaveta Smirnova, 9, Irkutsk Region.

Vladimir Putin: I would prefer the oral exam.

Valeriya Korableva: And the last question from children. Do you like porridge for breakfast? When you were little, did you like any kind of porridge and what did you do if you were forced to eat porridge you did not like? Anastasia Zaitseva, 9, St Petersburg.

Vladimir Putin: I was never forced to do what I did not want to, that was my life. Speaking of porridge, I eat it every day with pleasure. Today, for example, I ate pearl barley porridge.

Valeriya Korableva: Additional question: Did your liking of porridge change with age?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, it changed, for the better. The less teeth you have the more you like porridge. (Laughter, applause.)

Valeriya Korableva: Thank you.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: It is time to connect to Sakhalin, an island so far, yet so dear to us. Our colleague Pavel Zarubin is on the air. Go ahead, Pavel.

Pavel Zarubin: Good afternoon, Moscow. Greetings from the village of Ozyorskoye, on Sakhalin Island. I am in a plant that produces canned fish, which is why I am wearing these boots and a special coat. These are sanitary requirements.

It is a relatively new plant, opened about two years ago. By the way, do not be surprised that the plant is working even though it is about 10 PM here. Yes, the plant works late. In fact, it will work until 4 in the morning.

Good evening. What kind of fish are you canning?

Remark: It is mackerel pike.

Pavel Zarubin: How many tins do you produce per day?

Remark: Between 50,000 and 68,000 tins per shift.

Pavel Zarubin: And where is the fish from?

Remark: From China.

Pavel Zarubin: Chinese fish? I must say we have been surprised to learn that they can Chinese fish on Sakhalin Island. But as they told us at the plant, the fishing season has ended on Sakhalin, which is why they buy Chinese fish. They will have local fish by summer.

We have been in this village for several days already, and we had an opportunity to talk to the locals. We know their concerns: housing and utilities, healthcare and, of course, fish. People complained that it is difficult or even impossible to buy local fish at the shops in these small coastal villages, even though fish producing companies catch less than half of the government quota.

As I said, the plant is canning Chinese fish. Now I’d like to let the plant workers speak. They worked at a plant on the Kuril island of Shikotan, and they have told us incredible things. We believe you should hear them.

These people say that they were treated like slaves or hostages on Shikotan. They were lured there from central Russia or Siberia with the promise of good wages. However, after they arrived on the island, their wages were delayed for months, and so they were unable to leave, because you need money to buy a ticket, but they did not receive their wages.

Since they had no money, they had to live on the plant’s compound, and the plant management withheld part of their wages, which these people did not receive, as housing payment. Ultimately, these people ended up owing money to the plant.

Moreover, when we learned about this and invited the victims here, to Direct Line, some of them received explicit threats, and were afraid to come here. Yet we have convinced some of these people to speak about what they experienced on Shikotan.

Tatyana, please tell us about the situation there.

Remark: Good afternoon, Mr President.

My name is Tatyana. Last autumn, we worked on Shikotan Island at the Ostrovnoy Fish Processing Plant. We were not paid our wages there. People are lured into going there through personnel recruitment agencies, but the working and living conditions there are awful. People are essentially left without housing.

Please help us to resolve this problem.

Pavel Zarubin: Yelena, tell us please (Yelena is another of the victims), is it really practically impossible to get away from there?

Remark: Yes, it is impossible because you are on an island, there is water all around, and so people have no way to leave and no money.

Pavel Zarubin: How many months do people go without pay?

Remark: It can be two or three months, even up to six months.

Pavel Zarubin: Thank you. That then is the situation on Shikotan.

Vladimir Putin: I do not even know what to say here. Did this situation begin last year, or has it been going on for a longer time?

Remark: Since 9 August, 2015.

Vladimir Putin: Have you turned to the authorities at all on this matter?

Remark: Yes, we wrote to the Sakhalin Region Prosecutor’s Office.

Vladimir Putin: And what was the result?

Pavel Zarubin: Let me add that other victims also say they wrote to the prosecutor’s office, but they have not had any response, and they only got a response after they wrote to the Presidential Executive Office.

Vladimir Putin: Sadly, I have not seen this letter to the Presidential Executive Office, but the local officials, especially the law enforcement officials, the prosecutor’s office and the labour inspection, should have responded promptly.

I hope the Prosecutor General is listening to this part of our discussion and will look into the situation and decide on whether the Sakhalin Region prosecutor is really fit for his job, and I want the Labour Ministry to look into the work of its local offices on Sakhalin as well.

I hope to hear back about what is happening there and about the personnel decisions that result and the measures taken to sort this problem out. I also want to apologise to the people who spoke to us and our reporters just now and say that we will do everything we can to fix this situation.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Let us field another question from Sakhalin. Pavel, please.

Pavel Zarubin: We have many questions. Go ahead, Alexei.

Alexei Obrezkov: Hello, Mr Putin! My name is Alexei Obrezkov. I would like to ask a question about the responsibility of government and business officials to the people. You see, since the 1990s, our fishing villages have been dying, with the aging fleet never renewed, but at the same time, some money seems to be allocated, and it just goes away. It seems as though it ends up in the pockets of officials or dishonest businessmen who steal it.

Also, our former governor, Mr Khoroshavin, who is now under investigation, has embezzled billions according to the media. I am just wondering, will he receive condign punishment, which would be a lesson for others? And will the money be returned to the Sakhalin Region’s budget? Tell me he will not get away with it like Ms Vasilyeva? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: You know, it would be premature and unethical to talk about the outcome of these proceedings, and even wrong under the current law. However, I can assure you that thorough work is underway on this case as well as on other high-profile cases, and there are too many of them to list now.

No, this case is not going to be taken lightly, and an appropriate punishment will be handed down, if he deserves it, without a doubt. It is equally hard to say now if the money will be returned even if it has been established that it is public money, but part of Khoroshavin’s property has been seized. This part at least can be returned to the state.

Valeriya Korableva: What about another former governor, Vyacheslav Gayzer, who led the Komi Republic?

Vladimir Putin: The same. I know the case is being worked on. The Investigative Committee regularly reports to me about it in writing. I know that the work is progressing, but it should be carried out in a professional manner, and the case will eventually be sent to court.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Thank you, Sakhalin. Thank you, Pavel. And we are back to the call centre with Tatyana Remezova.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you, Yevgeny. We have more than 2.5 million questions.

Vladimir Putin: Sorry. I would still like to say a few words about the fish. We are now preparing a draft law to regulate this industry. Do our colleagues hear us or not?

Yevgeny Rozhkov: I think they do.

Vladimir Putin: To respond to what has been said on Russian plants not working at full capacity and relying on Chinese fish. What is actually happening right now? Today, fish that could have been processed by Russian plants comes on shore frozen. Once it reaches the shore, it goes through clearance procedures, and is then transferred to another ship or is exported on the same vessel, while Chinese fish ends up at our plants.

There is a law being drafted, according to which fish will be brought on shore either fresh or cooled. This way, it would make no economic sense, as experts in this industry say, to freeze this fish and send it somewhere else. So there is hope that Russian plants will get this fish.

Moreover, quotas will be allocated to those engaged in this kind of work, and 70 percent will go to companies that use their own ships. Those who meet these requirements will receive an additional quota of 20 percent of what they have, while those in breach of their obligations to the state would lose the quotas altogether. Another 20 percent will go toward investment activity.

You have mentioned that your fishing fleet is becoming obsolete. Of the 20 percent that I have mentioned, five percent will go toward improving land infrastructure, and 15 percent, or the so-called underkeel quota, will be used to build new vessels. The Government will be in charge of finalising this draft law. There is an endless process underway to coordinate the text with various agencies, but I believe that this draft law will be enacted by the State Duma during its 2016 spring session.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Thank you, Sakhalin Region.

Let us move to the call centre. Ms Remezova, please.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you, Mr Rozhkov.

We have received over 2.5 million queries. By topic, housing and utilities and social issues still lead the pack, however, there is also a lot of interest this year in politics, both regional and domestic, as well as foreign policy and Russia’s relations with the West. We are even receiving calls from the United States.

We have Eduard Ladov, Balashikha, on the air. Good afternoon, please ask your question.

Eduard Ladov: Good afternoon, Mr Putin.–

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Eduard Ladov: Why are you not responding to the slander coming from the Western media? Perhaps you should hire good lawyers and sue the media for publishing false information about offshore businesses? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I thought that we put this issue behind us, but if you are interested, I can say more about it.

First, strange as it may seem, they do not publish false information about offshore businesses. Their information is reliable. It looks like it was put together by lawyers rather than reporters –judging by the presentation style and the facts. After all, they are not accusing anyone of anything specifically. This is their entire point. They are simply pulling the wool over our eyes. Some of my friends engage in some sort of business. The question is whether a portion of these offshore funds makes it to government officials, including the President. However, no one could ever think that Mr Roldugin would spend all of the money that he earned there to buy musical instruments.

We have heard here, in Russia, about bribes in the form of borzoi greyhound puppies, but violins and cellos are something unheard of. Moreover, these people’s allegations fell wide off the mark, which came as a surprise to them. Besides other considerations, it is also because the items I am referring to are very specific and can be appreciated by all collectors who have them. Selling them to anyone is simply impossible.

The instruments that Mr Roldugin bought – I believe, he bought two violins and two cellos are unique. The last one he bought (I will say it, because it was already posted online) cost about $12 million. I am not sure if we have instruments of such value in our country. Rostropovich had one, but, unfortunately, we were unable to buy it – the state had no money for that – and it went to Japan.

The instruments I am referring to (I spoke with Mr Roldugin) have proper names. This cello is called Stuart. Recently, Mr Roldugin performed in Moscow, I believe, at the Philharmonic, and the reporters said he played an old, apparently used, but clearly much-loved instrument. Indeed, it is a used instrument. It has been in use since 1732, and was made by Stradivarius. The legendary King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, was its first owner.

Of course, such instruments can serve only one purpose — to please music lovers. However, it did not occur to anyone that we have people like Mr Roldugin. He is now in the process of transferring the title to this violin to the state.

Nevertheless, I am asking all kinds of crooks and the like to settle down. Sergei already has nothing, because he has spent more money to purchase these instruments than he had, and now he is in debt, even to the agencies and foundations through which he bought all of this.

However, who is engaged in these provocations? We know that there are employees of official US agencies; an article was written – I asked [my] press secretary Peskov where it first appeared – in Süddeutsche Zeitung. Süddeutsche Zeitung is part of a media holding that belongs to the US financial corporation Goldman Sachs. In other words, those behind this stick out, but they never blush.

We should not expect any repentance from them. They will keep doing this anyway, and the nearer the elections, the more such stories will be planted. However, they should understand that this is not about specific individuals, whatever their position in Russia. This is about a country that cannot be manipulated, cannot be forced to act and dance as somebody may want it to, to dance to somebody’s tune.

If they treat us respectfully, if they seek compromise solutions, the way we do, then we will find a solution that will suit everyone: both ourselves and our partners. Russia should simply be treated as an equal partner. This is the only correct conclusion based on what is happening now.

Valeriya Korableva: A question about elections, not in this country but in America. “Mr President, who is worse for Russia, Clinton or Trump?”

Vladimir Putin: You know, we should look for those who are better. I can only repeat what I said at the end of my response to the previous question, namely, that we have had moments in the history of our bilateral ties when we interacted very closely and achieved very good results on the national and international level.

Today there are also examples of such cooperation, relating to issues of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the fight against terrorism, the resolution, say, of Iran’s nuclear problem, chemical weapons in Syria and the fight against terror in general.

There are also other examples of positive interaction, but our partners, to reiterate, if they act on the assumption… You see, it is not even a matter of specific individuals there. However, if they act on the false premise of their own exclusiveness, this will mean that they will lay claim to a special status and special rights. This is a gnoseological mistake, some experts say. It is essential to go to the root of the problem and act not from the position of force and dictate, not from the position of imperial ambitions, but to act respectfully with regard to all partners, and of course, with regard to Russia. Without this, it is impossible to build modern democratic international relations.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: We have many guests in our studio – both familiar and unfamiliar to you ‒ and everyone is bound to have a question.

Perhaps you will give them an opportunity to ask these questions?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, go ahead, please.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Choose a guest, please.

Vladimir Putin: Fine.I see a colleague raising his hand.

Maxim Khanzhin: Maxim Khanzhin, the Leaders’ Club.

Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My question is about Motor Third Party Insurance. Prices went up recently [as did the coverage amount ] and not all car owners are happy about it. I think the biggest Third Party issue is swindling. Here is my question. Could you instruct the Central Bank to look into a switch to compensation in kind, that is, establish a network of regional services where car owners can get their cars repaired at the expense of insurance companies? This way, we will first dramatically reduce swindling, which will make it possible to reduce Third Party Liability rates; second, it will create jobs and, third, increase the tax collection rate. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: You know, we discussed this issue with Ms Nabiullina not so long ago, albeit not yesterday. Your proposal is probably good and correct, but the Central Bank does not deal with such issues. Nonetheless, I believe we should think about how your idea could be included in the Central Bank’s competence and how to carry it out in real life. We will think about it. OK. Thank you.

Go ahead, please.

Raisa Karamzina: Mr Putin, in 2010 you adopted a resolution as the Prime Minister on establishing the Krasnoyariye public enterprise (I am from the Krasnoyarsk Territory, from the North, from Norilsk). Later on, it was supposed to be transferred to the region for operational management with a view to supporting local airports. This resolution has not been carried out to this day. Various reasons are being cited, but these are strategic airports in Dixon, Khatanga and Yeniseisk. You know well what is deployed there.

Vladimir Putin: We will return to this issue by all means. I know that the work there is making slow headway. In fact, there were two resolutions aimed at providing transportation between Russian regions, especially remote areas. Therefore, this is the first point about airports. Now the second point – the establishment of a regional company. It is being set up in the centre but should operate in the regions. Work on these projects is not moving along as quickly as we would like. We will look into this by all means.We will certainly deal with this and will speed up the work.

Vasily Melnichenko: I have a question about villages.

Vladimir Putin: Villages? Please go ahead.

Vasily Melnichenko: The village of Galkinskoye, Sverdlovsk Region.

Mr Putin, we have the 2020 Strategy. According to this strategy, it seems 426 rural schools, over 300 hospitals and 215 kindergartens will be closed in 2016. Perhaps, we should stop developing programmes like this? If we carefully read the President’s instructions of May 6, 2014, they do not say anything at all about closing schools, kindergartens or hospitals. The purpose of the instructions was to ensure more efficient and responsible local governance, create more jobs and ultimately eliminate unemployment. The purpose was to create a decent and full life for us, Mr Putin. Mau will be writing to Gref, Gref will be writing to Mau. What are we supposed to do? Let us simply implement the President’s instructions, and perhaps this would be enough.

Vladimir Putin: Regarding a reduction in the number of social institutions, some optimisation may be necessary. I do not want to say that the document was nonsense. However, I totally agree with you that we must take into account this country’s peculiarities. One of these peculiarities is the fact that in some of our vast areas, the distance between towns may be quite significant.

Under these circumstances, we must, by all means, preserve the social services network, even if, unfortunately, somebody thinks it is excessive. This includes hospitals, or more commonly, paramedic centres and outpatient clinics. In some areas, they can be incorporated into district hospitals, but where this is impossible, the paramedic centres must be retained. A pregnant woman cannot travel hundreds of kilometres on unpaved roads to have a baby. Factors like this should be considered before any action is taken. Unreasonable reduction of the facilities is unacceptable.

Of course, we will look into this situation. I have spoken about this repeatedly. When it comes to the social development plan for rural areas (and the plan exists), nothing can be included without thinking, let alone implemented. We must focus on other indicators, and on setting positive examples.

For example, we had a task to ensure a sufficient number of preschool facilities in the country. This task is now 99 percent complete. This result sets an example for other objectives. It is absolutely inadmissible to reduce social facilities where they are in high demand. We will discuss that.

Vasily Melnichenko: If we implement the President’s instructions, we will get a Russian economic miracle. Nothing else is required. All we need to do is follow the instructions.

Natalya Yuryeva: Mr Putin, if I may, I think it would be fair to give the floor to cultural personalities. Mr Mikhalkov, please, go ahead.

Nikita Mikhalkov: Thank you.

Good afternoon, Mr Putin. We have just seen officials respond to the issue of bad roads in Omsk Region. We then learned about the situation on Sakhalin. It has just occurred to me that we would not want this girl to be bulldozed into the ground after what she said. This is the first thing I wanted to say. The second thing I have to say is that on my way here I was stopped near the entrance by two young people with disabilities. They told me that they were invited, but something went wrong and they were not called for. So they asked whether I could bring them in. I said that I could not do it, but nevertheless asked them what they wanted. One of them was Andrei Batalov, who chairs an association of people with disabilities in Rostov-on-Don. They have been asking their regional authorities for help. They want to do business and are not asking for money, they are asking for help. So I thought that since they were not allowed inside, it would be the right thing for me to voice their request.

Vladimir Putin: Very well. You can later submit this document. Does it contain data?

Nikita Mikhalkov: No, nothing, only the notes I made on the way here. This is an association of people with disabilities from Rostov-on-Don.

Vladimir Putin: Ok, we will try to find them.

Nikita Mikhalkov: Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: By the way, substantial resources were earmarked for helping people with disabilities in the Government’s anti-crisis plan. It is not however related to helping them engage in business activity, as the funds are intended for rehabilitation and mobility purposes. This is a completely different matter.

Let us move here. Who will be next?

Olga Krivolapova: Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Olga Krivolapova. I am an associate professor at MISIS National University of Science and Technology.

First, I would like to thank you for supporting research. Second, let me highlight the programme to develop higher educational institutions and make them more competitive. It is already yielding tangible results. For example, it is through this programme that we were able to design a new protective suite and received high praise for it: it won us the Russian Government’s science and technology award for young researchers. The question I wanted to ask is whether the funding will remain at the same level or it will be reduced due to the crisis in Russia?

Vladimir Putin: There will be some adjustments, and part of the funding will be reallocated as grants. Your university has probably carried out its programmes using grants. What programme did you use? The Russian Science Foundation one, or the one from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research?

Olga Krivolapova: No, we received ours through the Ministry of Emergencies.

Vladimir Putin: Directly?

Olga Krivolapova: Yes, we won in a contest and worked along these lines.

Vladimir Putin: How many people worked on this project?

Olga Krivolapova: In fact, we had a team working on the project, including six young researchers.

Vladimir Putin: What is the average age of a researcher?

Olga Krivolapova: Are you referring to the project or the university in general?

Vladimir Putin: The university.

Olga Krivolapova: About 53 years.

Vladimir Putin: Is this really the average age?

Olga Krivolapova: Yes.

Vladimir Putin: It is even slightly above the national average, but it is fine that way.

Could you pass the microphone, please?

Nikolai Govorin: I am Nikolai Govorin, State Duma deputy from Trans-Baikal Territory.

Mr Putin, in your 2013 Address to the Federal Assembly, you instructed the Government to draft regulations on priority development areas in the Russian Far East and Siberia. Unfortunately, Trans-Baikal Territory was not designated as such an area. Moreover, the territory receives the smallest possible share of government allocations under federal programmes. Irkutsk Region and Buryatia each receive 4.5 percent, while Trans-Baikal Territory only receives 1 percent.

The economic situation in Trans-Baikal Territory is troublesome. We have a new governor, and the number of people leaving the territory has been growing. I am asking you to instruct the industry-specific ministers to include Trans-Baikal Territory in the group of priority development areas, so that we have opportunities for development.

Vladimir Putin: It is true that this issue needs additional consideration. Trans-Baikal Territory was not included in the programmes designed for the Russian Far East. These programmes were prepared because the situation there, in particular regarding electricity and other rates, was the most difficult one in the country. Decisions have been taken to help the regions where the situation was truly dramatic, including in terms of the population outflow, which is greater in Trans-Baikal Territory. This is true.

However, you do not need to have your region included in these programmes. What you need is money, but the money has been distributed among the Far Eastern regions. However, this does not mean that we can disregard the problems of Trans-Baikal Territory. I fully agree with you on this. We do not need to decide whether to include Trans-Baikal Territory in the Far East or any other region. What we should do is find the money to address your current problems. I know this, and we have recently discussed this issue with the Government, or more precisely with the Far East Development Minister and with [Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District] Yury Trutnev.

Valeriya Korableva: We have been on air for two hours, and we have received over three million calls. Let us give the floor to the call centre.

Vladimir Putin: Please, do so.

Natalya Yuryeva: Thank you, Valeriya. We have very many video calls; in fact, our centre is recording peak figures. People are concerned about their future, and not just for their families but for Russia as a whole, and a country’s future is decided at elections. I would like to remind you that we only have five months and two days until the next State Duma elections. The video we are going to play has been made by Dmitry Bocharov from Moscow Region.

Dmitry Bocharov: Hello Mr President, I am Dmitry Bocharov, from Moscow.

Everyone says we should go and vote in the State Duma elections, and they assure us the elections will be faultless and transparent. However, is it worth taking part in the elections when we know that the votes will be counted in United Russia’s favour anyway? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Well, I have done nothing to earn your thanks yet. It was Stalin who once said that it is not whom people vote for that matters, but who does the counting. I hope though, that this will not be the case. First of all, no one has any doubt about the electoral commissions’ effectiveness and objectivity, and if people do have doubts, there are also ways for them to protect their interests.

However, this is not the real issue. Let me say a few words about United Russia. As you know, this party has been in power for many years now and it has always carried a great burden of responsibility for all of the problems we still have to solve, including perhaps those for which it is not directly responsible. People are in their right to demand and expect effective work from this party. They are perfectly justified to do so.

It is also true, however, that United Russia acts as a stabilising force in our political system. Why does it carry this particular responsibility? You can make all kinds of decisions, of course, as was the case in the mid-1990s, say, when everyone was busy making promises but no one actually did anything and the economy, social sector, and budgeting were simply heading for ruin.

But when you start making responsible decisions about organising a complete overhaul of apartment blocks, say, what to do about the housing and utilities sector, how to make sure that needy groups have the medicines they require, decent medicines and at reasonable prices, this always involves compromises of one kind or another, always. It is impossible to completely satisfy all demands. This is a sad fact, but it is the reality all around the world.

Look at Europe’s most developed countries. Are people entirely happy with the healthcare systems there? No, I assure you that they are not. Are they all happy with their education systems? No. Are they all happy with their pension provisions? No, there are problems everywhere, absolutely everywhere. Yes, we maybe have more problems, bigger problems, and so we will have to work harder than some other countries. In this respect, United Russia plays a tremendously important role, but this in no way means that the party benefits from preferential treatment of any kind.

If you look back to the recent gubernatorial elections in Irkutsk Region, the United Russia candidate did not make it through in the first round, did not get the required number of votes. He was short on votes by only 0.36 percent. Following your logic, it should have been a piece of cake to fiddle this figure slightly, but no one did this. In the second round, he lost to the Communist Party candidate. Candidates from parties other than United Russia have won elections in a number of large cities, in Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and several others, and recently in Petrozavodsk.

My point is that if people take seriously their duties as voters, no matter whether they want to vote for United Russia or for other candidates they think worthy, we will end up with the government the country desires. I therefore support those who want to come and will come to the polling stations and cast their votes in the parliamentary elections.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Let us talk about elections in detail, especially as both the parliamentary and the regional elections, are coming soon, in September.

Olga, over to you and your guests.

Olga Pautova: Thank you, Yevgeny.

As we were preparing for the direct line and talking to our guests, it became clear that almost everyone is concerned about this issue, but, of course, political experts are especially outspoken. Today we have political commentator Alexei Mukhin in our studio.

Alexei, please go ahead with your question.

Alexei Mukhin: Political Information Centre, Moscow.

Good afternoon, Mr President. What our voters have on offer is a set stock of party brands: United Russia that you just mentioned, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal Democratic Party and A Just Russia. They are led by respected politicians and so on. However, unfortunately, all other brands, all other party associations are kept at bay.

It seems to me that there is a kind of conspiracy here on the part of the brands that have struck root and are part of the established setup in parliament, and they simply do not allow others to move forward. In addition, a similar situation is emerging in the non-establishment opposition. The same faces have been around for years now. Tell me please, are we doomed to this kind of stability or is there still a chance?

Vladimir Putin: First of all, I would not call our political parties brands; after all, these are large public organisations, not some market commodity. And millions of voters are behind them.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: “Brands” mostly likely refers to the leaders of these parties.

Vladimir Putin: I understand and still, I will state my position on the way the question was formulated. This is first.

Second, as a matter of fact, the situation is exactly the same in countries that cast themselves as mature democracies. This is confusing and it can even be dangerous. Look, over centuries, there have been only two parties at the top in the United States: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. In Europe, say, in France, there are socialists and conservatives; in Germany, there are Christian Democrats, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social-Democratic Party, and they are all together; there are liberals, but they are, rather, on the sidelines.

Today, amid the ongoing crises, the refugee flow and the [public] discontent, new parties are emerging: Alternative for Germany. I cited the example of Yekaterinburg where a representative of the Democratic Platform or whatever it is called has become the mayor of one of the country’s largest cities, so this is already happening here.

As for concrete individuals, take the United States as an example. First Bush Sr was in power there, later on Bush Jr – all from the same family. Clinton was in power for two terms and now his wife is laying claim to this position, and the family may remain in office. What does this have to do with removability? As the saying goes, “Husband and wife are a single devil,” and they will be at the helm. I am not saying this is all bad. There are pros and cons to it.

As for the leaders of our parties, you know that the revolutionary events of the early 1990s brought to the fore charismatic people who can lead others – this is the first point. Second, and most important, they have a position. This is extremely important. The CPRF and the liberal democrats have their own ideologies. Sergei Mironov’s party also has a socialist ideology. I am referring to the members of Just Russia.

I believe United Russia has generally a conservative, centrist platform. It is sailing our national ship between Scylla and Charybdis, choosing options that are acceptable for large strata of the population, for our citizens, and assuming responsibility for what are not such popular decisions.

This is the current situation, but this does not mean that our list of political parties is not expanding. It is. What decision did we make? To remove certain restrictions for access to elections. I do not remember the exact figures and I wouldn’t want to make a mistake, but the number of parties admitted to regional and federal elections has increased dramatically. It turns out, access to elections is not the main issue. First and foremost, they must show electors what they want and how they plan to achieve their goals.

Valeriya Korableva: Let give Sergei Dorenko an opportunity to ask a question, as you wished. Olga, this is in your section.

Olga Ushakova: I believe we will continue talking about the opposition.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: But please pass a microphone so that the audience can hear us.

Olga Ushakova: Our colleague, journalist, Editor-in-Chief of the radio station “This is Radio Moscow!

Sergei Dorenko: When you started talking about elections and the year of elections, Mr Putin, I was sure that this would be a nerve-racking discussion, and it has begun. We have already been told that the opposition are the “enemies of the people” and we have been shown our former prime minister in the sights of a gun.

I think the role of the state is to set the formats, that this, the limits beyond which nobody should go. Could you tell governors and the public forces here and now, using your massive authority, where it is allowed to fight for the horizons of the future without rules, and where rules must be observed?

Vladimir Putin: Nowhere is it allowed to fight without rules! If we are a civilized state…

Sergei Dorenko: Does this mean that the hunt for public enemies is permitted? You know, if we begin this year with attempts to uncover public enemies, it won’t end well. I don’t even want to say how.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I see who you are referring to. You are referring to the head of one of Russia’s regions in the Caucasus. I see that. I raised this issue with him personally. That said, let’s look at how things are in reality. What is this reality all about? Who is the person you are talking about?

It is true that he now heads one of Russia’s regions, the Chechen Republic. Where did he start? By conducting a partisan war against us. Have you forgotten it? He was armed and fighting alongside his father. No one forced his father, no one recruited or coerced him. He came to the conclusion on his own that Chechnya should be with the Russian people and be part of Russia.

This meets the interests of the Chechen people. This calls for a complex transformation of mentality. It was challenging and the need for it came from within. And I know that Ranzan Kadyrov shares these beliefs. He would have never headed any republic within the Russian Federation if he had not been confident that he was making the right choice. You know, these people are ready to risk everything, including their lives. One day he told me: “Let me die in dignity!” They are ready for it, but only if it meets the interests of their people. Still, we need to understand who these people are. I’m not even saying that people in the Caucasus are hotheads. So it is not easy for these people to learn the ropes of serving as a high-ranking government official.

We are all people, we have our past. However, I believe that the head of Chechnya and other Russian regions will understand the level and degree to which they are liable to people living on the territories they manage and to Russia in general. They must understand that undertaking extreme actions or making radical statements regarding opponents does not mean enhancing stability in the country. On the contrary, it is detrimental to stability. Once they understand it, and I’m confident that they will, as they are sincerely committed to serving national interests, there will be no statements of this kind. It may be also that there were omissions on my behalf in this respect.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Let’s move from politics to economics again, or should I say applied economics, as I’m referring to import-substitution. We have a new region live with us.

So, this is the Voronezh Region, Molvest dairy plant. Our colleague Dmitry Kaistro is working there.

Dmitry Kaistro: Good afternoon. We are in the village of Arkhangelskoye, Anninsky District, Voronezh Region.

This is the Molvest Company, one of the largest dairy enterprises in Russia. Not only in Russia, though. If you take a closer look at this dairy farm, it is also Europe’s largest, with 5,000 cows of different colours. This company makes all kinds of dairy products, but primarily commercial milk and milk used to make a variety of cheeses sold at our grocery stores.

Today, we have invited the people who work and live on the land and are trying to make a difference for themselves and our country to take part in the conversation. What problems are on your mind today?

Dmitry Zykov: Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Dmitry Zykov. I’m a farmer, and I work in livestock production.

We are concerned about the possibility of the sanctions being lifted. If they are, our products will never find their way to the market. We also have bank loans to repay. If cheap foreign products make it to Russia, we will not, unfortunately, be able to make good on these loans. And this will be the end for us.

Vladimir Putin: Well, it is not a question, as far as I can tell…

Yevgeny Rozhkov: A cry for help.

Vladimir Putin: You have outlined your situation and made your concerns known. You know, I do not think that our partners will repeal the restrictions and limitations with regard to our country any time soon, even despite the fact that the Minsk agreements regarding southeastern Ukraine are being complied with in a dreadful manner. It’s not our fault, but, as I am sure everyone understands now, the fault of the Kiev authorities. Still, they are unable to admit that they are now in a dead end. So, they will come up with something in order to keep these restrictions in place. Accordingly, we will maintain the appropriate restrictions on their food exports to our market.

If eventually they come to the realisation that repealing these restrictions serves their own interests, then, of course, they will create a difficult situation for us, because under the WTO rules, we will wind up unprotected if we keep our counter-sanctions in place.

We will closely monitor this process. There are many ways to support our agricultural sector. We can see – I have already mentioned it today – our farmers picking up momentum and producing more milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, as well as increasing their processing capabilities. There is an extensive support programme in place, and we will certainly do our best to carry it out. But let’s look at this problem not with fear, but rather optimism.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Dmitry, let’s have another question from Voronezh.

Dmitry Kaistro: Yes, the farmers and people in the agriculture sector in general have a lot of questions about product quality. Our hero here has one of these questions.

Alexander Knyazev: Hello Mr President, I am Alexander Knyazev, a farmer with 20 years’ experience.

We are engaged in horticulture and dairy farming. Our question concerns palm oil. Milk cannot compete with palm oil because palm oil is so much cheaper than milk. But the nation’s health is more important. We have the words ‘Smoking Kills’ written on all our cigarette packets. Mr President, can’t we do the same for palm oil?

Vladimir Putin: You want us to write that palm oil kills? That would be going too far. Not everyone thinks it is so bad for our health, though deception of consumers is a problem to some extent. You have cheese, butter and other products often made with palm oil, but sold as if they were natural products, and this is to some extent deceiving the consumers.

As for whether we should write on the packaging just what is inside the product, including palm oil, yes, we can and should do this, and in this respect I agree completely with you. This matter can be settled through our technical regulations. In other words, we need to take a decision making it obligatory for producers to write the necessary information, in bold, on their packaging.

The Eurasian Economic Commission is now responsible for deciding on matters of this sort. In this area, we need to coordinate our decisions with our partners, including with Kazakhstan, and with Belarus, whose representative currently heads the relevant commission or sub-commission within this organisation.

Our partners in Belarus, and the Government and President there will need to support this decision, but I think they too have an interest not so much in the transit and import of palm oil and using it in food products, as in developing their own agricultural sector. The Belarusian President takes this area very seriously and gives it much attention.

If for some reason we do not succeed in this, there is another option we could consider, perhaps even an option-and-a-half. We could, for example, introduce excise duties on palm oil, and this would make increase the costs of produce made with it, or we could reach agreements with producers on having them voluntarily write on the packaging information about the ingredients, and in return, the Government will not introduce an excise duty on palm oil. This is a subject we can discuss with the producers. But I want you to know that I am completely on your side. The consumers have the right to know what they are buying. Let’s try to settle this matter at least through the ways I just outlined and see how it works.

Valeriya Korableva: Thank you, Voronezh.

Now, back to the studio. I saw that Konstantin Khabensky wanted to ask a question. Perhaps we will give him this opportunity, if you’re not opposed.

Vladimir Putin: Please.

Olga Ushakova: With pleasure, thank you. Naturally, many people know Konstantin Khabensky as an actor and National Artist of Russia, but today, Konstantin is here, above all, as the founder of the Konstantin Khabensky Charity Foundation, which helps children with serious brain disorders. As far as I know, your question is of a medical nature.

Konstantin Khabensky: My question is more of a medical nature, yes. Today I have been entrusted with bringing up an issue that is in urgent need of your support, specifically the issue of resuscitation and intensive care wards.

We have a wonderful law, which has been adopted, and which really, stating that the parents, relatives of a child or a young person under 18 in a critical condition, have the right to be present in these resuscitation and intensive care wards. This is wonderful because there is no need to explain that when a person opens his eyes, effectively [returning] from another world, it is very important for this person to see not only the ceiling, but also to feel the warmth of [other people’s] hands, and so on.

However it turns out that this law may be “amended” at the local level. Sometimes these amendments are just crazy: they are simply impediments. Although I also understand that chief physicians and directors want everything to be sterile and in order. Nevertheless, at times this comes to the point of absurdity. What happens is that relatives run around nervously, having already found themselves in a difficult situation, trying to obtain some form or another and wondering if during the night [the authorities] may think up something else.

It is simply necessary to combine and supplement this law with a bill that was submitted to the State Duma on March 22: simply to come to an agreement, so that there are no unpleasant surprises at the local level. It seems to me that this is not very difficult. I believe not only age limitations, for those under 18, should be added there. It seems to me that all people who have found themselves in this kind of situation have a right. First of all, they are helpless and need human warmth and assistance.

I do not think this requires any serious financial input. We should simply agree and say: Folks, let everyone have the same regulations: stringent, but equal. It seems to me that it is not so difficult to get together and come to an agreement. Unlike the story that has been mentioned (and thank you very much for throwing your support behind the artificial ventilation issue last year), thank you very much for responding promptly and deciding that the state should assume the responsibility for providing these ventilators to children so that they do not occupy hospital beds and stay at home, not at the hospital.

We received a formal reply saying that meetings were held, and the issue was considered. The Ministry of Healthcare even sent us a letter saying that they understand everything. Just two seconds more. Here is a letter from the Ministry of Healthcare dated July 6: “The issue of providing healthcare services to critically ill children in need of artificial lung ventilation at home has been settled and does not require any amendments to the laws of the Russian Federation.”

This is wonderful. But ten days ago, and I fully trust my team, which has explored this issue in a parallel investigation, I was told a very simple thing. In fact, the situation remains as it was before this issue was raised and the Presidential instructions were issued. For a short moment the problems of this patient group came into the spotlight, but the issue remains unresolved. A week ago yet another child was denied what was agreed upon one year ago. Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: The second question is a matter of budget financing. That’s all there is to it.

Konstantin Khabensky: I understand that.

Vladimir Putin: When a hospital has artificial lung ventilators, they are working, and of course patients are able to stay in such hospitals. I understand that these people need these devices constantly, which means that they have to live in hospitals. This is very difficult. I understand that.

You know, this is something that I do not want to say, but cannot fail to mention: even hospitals did not have devices of this kind until recently. At least now they have them, and the numbers are growing. It goes without saying that the Ministry of Healthcare will address this issue with the expansion of regional and federal budgets. You were right to say that at least there are no legal restrictions. This device can be installed at home, and if relatives pass the necessary training, they can use it.

As for the first question you have asked about relatives being present in intensive care units, this is certainly a sensitive issue. And I understand why you have highlighted it. The law does not prevent relatives from being present in the intensive care unit, but hospital management usually opposes it.

It is not hard to understand why, since in most cases these are not private wards. There can be people nearby who also need special attention. So if outside people disturb other patients, the hospital management has to impose restrictions. That said, I do understand where this issue is coming from.

Konstantin Khabensky: Mr Putin, trust me. I know first-hand that there is always a place for a person who wants to help. Believe me, such people are always very helpful, including for the medical staff, who often ask for help.

Vladimir Putin: Maybe so. I will definitely raise this issue with Ms Skvortsova, and I’ll ask her to think of ways of improving the situation and to do something to this effect.

Konstantin Khabensky: Thank you.

Valeriya Korableva: Mister President, if you don’t object, let’s return to agricultural issues. Vera, your section has the floor.

Vera Krasova: We have here a representative of an agricultural farm from the Kaluga Region, third-generation agricultural producer Alexander Sayapin. Go ahead, please.

Alexander Sayapin: Good afternoon. Mister President, I took part in the programme, “Grants for Family Farms”, in 2012. At that time, I had 40 cows, whereas now I have almost 500. We no longer receive grants – we do not need them.

You know, farming is making steady headway but our produce appears at retail chains next to that of swindlers. You said they must mention palm oil – already by law – but they simply do not do this. When will they be punished for this?

Instead of punishing jerks, veterinarians invented an electronic vet-certification for us. It will come in force in 2018 – we will have to produce a vet-certification for each consignment. In other words, I will have to issue 1,500 vet-certification per day for two tonnes of produce – I bring fresh produce every day. This is sheer madness and should be stopped somehow. Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Naturally, as we say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and veterinarian services are certainly explaining such zeal by the need to protect the interests of consumers. But we understand what this may lead to and how this may be organised. So, if you see excessive regulation or control, we will definitely look at the performance of veterinarian services, although I will hardly say anything specific on the direct line. You know, the common trend is to get rid of red tape in the activities of small- and medium-sized companies and agriculture in particular.

We cannot leave this without control. I hope you will agree with this. We need quality products. They must be clean and they should not be diluted with water. Common sense should prevail in this regard. I promise we will look into this as a separate issue.

Valeriya Korableva: Irina Yarovaya has long been dealing with draft laws on trade. Let us give her an opportunity to express her opinion.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, as for the law, I will return to this law on trade that you mentioned that should have these provisions. But the colleague suggested writing it in large letters as on a cigarette pack. If letters are so small nobody could read them, then this is a formal job. As Vladimir Lenin said in his time: correct in form but sheer mockery de facto. We will see.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Ms Yarovaya has been dealing with the law on trade for a very long time, among other things.

Olga Pautova: I will just add a few words. This law is designed to make life easier for farmers like Alexander Sayapin and help them finally get access to the consumer at large.

Ms Yarovaya, when will this law be adopted?

Irina Yarovaya: Good afternoon, Mr President.

When sanctions were still a long way off, when everyone day-dreamed about imports and when it seemed that this would save the world, in 2009, remember, you chaired what I believe was a fateful Government meeting with the participation of retail chains and producers, and when prior to that you had paid a visit to a retail chain and “inspected the scene,” establishing how much things really cost and how much a customer had in fact has to pay for them. At the time, thanks to you, a law was adopted because many people were sure that there was no need for rules, although we understand that the farmer and the retail chain are entities of a different economic weight and that their rights can only be equated by law.

At the time, crucial decisions were made. Thanks to you, [financial] settlement deadlines were established and rules and prohibitions appeared. However, as you may remember, there were also compromise solutions at the time because retail chains made many promises and, as responsible people, we trusted those promises, but stayed alert and verified compliance.

Today, there are two problems that we will probably be able to resolve with your support. Business always complains about high taxes and costly money. Today, the 10 percent of the turnover premium that we agreed to allow the retail chains to keep at the time has turned into a permanent tax on all producers for whatever they supply to a retail chain.

The second problem is, of course, settlement deadlines. It is probably difficult to imagine an entrepreneur who has paid costs and takes high risks to be compensated for the products that he has supplied and no longer owns not in 30 or even 45 days, as we stipulated in the law, but, under all sorts of pretexts and tricks, in another 30 and 45 days, in addition to this. Therefore, Mr President, a year ago, we drafted amendments, realising that if promises are not kept the situation should be corrected and our producers and buyers have to be protected. However, for an entire year now, before the second reading, everything has got bogged down in bureaucratic procedures that lobbyists pursue through issue-specific agencies, effectively impeding the final adoption. I completely support our farmers.

Olga Pautova: Ms Yarovaya, if you could get to the point. Could you formulate your question to the President?

Irina Yarovaya: The fact is that there is no question: There is a request. Mr President, as you were directly involved in taking the initial decision, if we can adopt [the law] in its second and third readings at this spring session and put an end to bureaucratic delays and red tape on this issue I believe this will be serious support for our farmers with regard to import substitution.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, the issue really was very serious during the crisis of 2008–2009. We had to make extra efforts to support our agricultural sector and our famers. We were active on this then, passed a law. I see that these efforts are starting to slip now, sadly, and no longer producing the results they should have.

This is happening because the relevant government bodies are not giving this matter the attention they should be. Overall, if the law we passed back then were working as it should be, perhaps we would not be seeing the situation we see today, and would not need to make additions and amendments. But back then, we could thank for the results obtained not me, but Viktor Zubkov, who set up the special commission in this area and got it together every week and tried to maintain a balance between the interests of the producers and sellers, and between the retail chains.

I see that there are various obstacles now. On one side, lobbyists from the retail chains are at work, working through the Trade Ministry, and this is natural, this is their job, and on the other side, we have the Agriculture Ministry, which tries to lobby the agriculture sector’s interests.

There are three areas of work here. You essentially already spoke about this. It seemed to me that they settled back then the issue of speeding up payment for goods coming to the retail chains, and took decisions too on products with a short shelf life (I think they set a 10-day limit for making payments). But if there are still outstanding issues, we should come back to these problems and arrange the needed legal provisions to sort them out.

We also need to work out and settle on fair prices for the so-called bonus for shelf space. There are various proposals here, from zero to quite big figures. As far as I know, or what I was told at any rate, a compromise has been found at somewhere around five rubles, or five percent of the good’s cost.

What we absolutely do need to do in this area, in my view, is to give broader powers to the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, because it currently hardly works at all in this area of the economy. This too should be fixed in law. We should not delay here. I hope the Government will complete the approvals process and the State Duma will examine the draft laws during the spring session.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: News continues coming in. The TASS agency reports that a criminal case has been opened at the fish processing plant on Shikotan that we heard about before from our reporter Pavel Zarubin. We don’t know the details yet, but we are following the news feed and we see the responses taking place.

Nailya, you probably have more questions about business in your sector.

Nailya Asker-zade: True, there are many entrepreneurs in our sector. One of our guests is a man who does not leave ministries and departments in peace, because he monitors their cooperation with small and medium-scale business. His name is Artyom Avetisyan, and he is from the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, Chair of the Leaders’ Club.

Mr Avetisyan, will you once again scold the controllers?

Artyom Avetisyan: Good afternoon, Mr President.

We not only travel to Antarctica and the North Pole with the Leaders’ Club, but we also continuously monitor the situation among businessmen.

Not long ago, we took a look at how things stand with inspections of business. For objectivity’s sake, I should say that life has indeed become easier for someone. But for the majority, I’d like to point out, when you ask them “Well, have you had fewer inspectors?” their eyes open wide in surprise: “What? They are like a mad dog on the loose, and don’t you dare complain.” Some businessmen have up to four inspections over a year. We have tried to figure it out why this is so.

It turned out that there is a certain principle, I would call it punitive. When inspectors come, and even if everything is all right, they simply cannot leave without finding fault with at least some trifle. This reminds me of the “rod” system the police used to practice before. And at this complicated time, instead of treating business gently, they continue pressing it. And no matter what the Government does, and the Government does a lot, or what [tax] vacations are being granted, business remains just as it used to be: a milking cow, if you’ll forgive me this old-fashioned comparison. That said, Mr President, my question is pretty clear: when will the authorities finally take their attitude to business to a new level, from unilateral milking to normal healthy partnership?

Nailya Asker-zade: If I may, we have many businessmen facing this problem. May I give the floor to somebody else?

Introduce yourself, please.

Vyacheslav Zykov: Vyacheslav Zykov, the Bris-Bosfor company, Novorossiysk. We produce footwear. We are the largest footwear producer in Russia. I started my business as an ordinary private entrepreneur in the 1990s. In the late 90s we built a factory and have expanded to this day. The factory employs more than 2,000 people. We are doing fairly well, production is growing. And my question is in tune with the previous one: when will they leave us, businesses, alone, since we have really been tormented by inspections?

Vladimir Putin: I see. Is that all as regards the theme of inspection?

You know, we are constantly working on this problem. But such is our mentality, especially when it comes to bureaucrats, if someone has some status, he tries to squeeze maximum advantage out of it and secure rent. They are laughing over there, but this is not funny. Yet, I believe that both the first speaker and our second colleague, who asked his question, surely know that after we imposed rules stipulating that all inspections must be coordinated with the prosecutor’s office, the number of applications for inspections has decreased by one-third. And of the total number applications filed, the prosecutor’s office does not confirm 50 percent of those applications as necessary. And this work will continue. And together with the business community we will also look for additional means and use them to create a favourable business climate.

As you know, a decision has been made on vacation for small and medium-sized businesses for inspection activities. A colleague involved in the agriculture industry has mentioned that they are ”pestered“ by sanitary services. These cases should be considered separately, and we will do this. Constant efforts should be made together with you, and we should seek the issues that raise most concern. We will work together on this.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: We have people involved in inspecting activities present here today, in this sector.

Vladimir Putin: You have eagerly raised your hand to ask a question. Yes, you. Pass the microphone, please.

Avdotya Smirnova: Good afternoon, Mr President.

My name is Avdotya Smirnova and I am the director of the Foundation for Assistance for Autistic Children in Russia. A very good and progressive law on education has been passed. This law holds that each and every child should have access to education, including those with a severe form of autism. However, in general education schools and kindergartens in all regions, except the Voronezh Region, where this issue is approached in a systemic matter, and the Belgorod Region, where more efforts are being made in this regard, such children are nearly always refused. Schools refuse to teach them for various reasons: under subordinate acts, due to the lack of a special environment or the lack of specialists. They suggest to parents that their kids be educated at home – so we have ended up with not just one child but an entire family closed up within four walls. What should be done to have the law on education work for autistic children as well? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. You should be be thanked, not me, for your work in this field. It is early to thank me – you have just mentioned that the law fails to work in this respect. What are we to be thanked for then?

But generally speaking, I think the problem is not about us but about society not yet being ready for full inclusive education. But the government should support efforts made by such people as yourself, and should itself promote the idea of inclusive education, and all the more so as children with autism deserve such support in full. As you are involved in this, you probably know this better than I. I mean, you are completely aware that such kids are often very talented and even gifted. They have the ability to focus their attention on one matter in a way that is impossible for other people, and can achieve surprising, even outstanding, results. Of course, their families should receive support. What can I say? We will make every effort in this regard.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: If you allow us to take back the reins of hosting this programme, we will return to oversight agencies, since there are also thousands, if not tens of thousands of unfair cases.

Vladimir Putin: You know, as we talked I saw a question that appeared on the screen. I think that it was an interesting one: “Will the EurAsEC get a national currency?” This is a vast subject. Generally speaking, it is an interesting one. Perhaps one day it will become possible, but only at a stage when member states of the Eurasian Economic Union are on the same page in terms of economic development and structure.

We should by all means avoid the mistakes of the European Union when it introduced a single currency. The difference between the economies of its member states was so huge that it led to major challenges, such as for example the Greek crisis. The country received hand-outs from the EU, but these hand-outs did nothing to foster economic development or improve the structure of the Greek economy.

We have to take these issues into account within EEU and move forward step by step. Of course, this is all voluntary, and we need to have full consensus on this matter. We must all want it, including Russia and its EurAsEC partners.

There was also an observation rather than a question. Someone wrote: “Your work is anything but easy. But working behind the counter or in a mine is not easier.” Good point. I fully agree. My best wishes to those working in mines, behind the counter and anywhere else.

Here is another interesting message. A family with many children in Stavropol received a land plot, but later it was taken away from them because some kind of regional law was adopted, under which the family was no longer viewed as in need of assistance. How is it possible that a land plot was taken away from a family with many children? I don’t understand. I will surely raise this issue with the Governor of the Stavropol Territory, Mr Vladimirov, who by the way has the same name and patronymic as I do.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Shall we give oversight bodies an opportunity to speak out?

Vladimir Putin: Yes.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: After all, those who are inspected had their chance, while those who inspect them did not.

Vladimir Putin: Go ahead.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Ms Pautova, your turn.

Olga Pautova: It is true that we have quite a few guests here who can contradict what businesspeople have said. I would like to present Alexei Mikhan, a fire safety inspector.

Alexei, go ahead with your question for the President.

Alexei Mikhan: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to fully renounce inspections. Even during this event, we can see that the state has a major role to play. Nevertheless, in order to reach some kind of a balance and compromise with the entrepreneurs, we need to think about some kind of a law of a framework that would enable us to issue instructions at the first stage instead of imposing sanctions right away, and use sanctions only if the instructions are not followed up upon.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: To the full extent.

Vladimir Putin: We work and think on the same wavelength. In fact, a Presidential instruction has already been issued, saying that this is how oversight bodies and regulators should work. Moreover, regulatory amendments to this effect are in the pipeline, and I hope that the Government will enact them in the near future. (Applause.)

Valeriya Korableva: Well, on to a different subject. Here is a question from our programme’s website. You have mentioned the Minsk agreements already today. The question is: “Why all this talk about Minsk 2? The Minsk agreements are not implemented and, to all appearances, will not be implemented by Kiev. What will become of Donbass? Will another war break out?”

Vladimir Putin: Right, much has been left hanging with implementing the Minsk agreements. I will try to be very careful, but there are obvious things. Their obviousness lies in the following:

Political issues are the top priority when we address all those problems in southeastern Ukraine. The population of these territories must feel safe and realise that they have modern civilised rights, and the right to exercise these rights.

What I mean is this. Constitutional changes should come first. According to the Minsk agreements, the Ukrainian Constitution should be amended before the end of 2015. However, as we know, these changes came through the vote in the first reading but got stuck in the second. After all, it is not up to us to change the Ukrainian Constitution.

As was stipulated, the law on the special status was to be introduced de facto within 30 days upon its signing. It has not been introduced, however. The endorsement of the amnesty law was also stipulated. It has been adopted but the President has not signed it. It is not our duty to do that. Is this clear? They keep complaining that shooting is heard from time to time along the demarcation line. It is a false excuse, however convenient it might be for those who do not want to comply with the Minsk agreements – excuse my bluntness.

They start shooting and get return fire, and there they have a skirmish. Does this mean that there is no need to implement the Minsk agreements? No. There is no alternative to the implementation of the Minsk agreements if the problem is to be settled. The United States, Europe and our other partners say: You know, they have a complicated domestic political situation, so they cannot do it. Maybe they cannot, but what do we have to do with it? You see, that is what the problem boils down to.

However, if the Ukrainian authorities and our European partners really want us to travel that road and come to the right goal, it demands teamwork with partners in Kiev, where the President, the incoming and outgoing prime ministers, and the entire opposition are linked with Western countries one way or another. Exercise your influence on them, then, instead of repeating again and again that Moscow should implement this and that. We have done everything we were supposed to do, and they also have to do something now.

Let us see how the situation develops. We are willing to promote the process in any possible way. I proceed from the assumption that there will be no active fighting anymore. On the contrary, when I talked with President Pyotr Poroshenko recently, he suggested – it was really his suggestion – that the OSCE presence should be enlarged, particularly, that armed OSCE officers should be present along the demarcation line, to have the ceasefire fully observed.

I think this is the right thing to do, and we support it. Now, we should work with our Western partners for the OSCE to pass this decision, increase its staff substantially and, if necessary, authorise its officers to bear firearms.

Viktoria Korablyova: While we are on the air, Ukraine has got a new prime minister. As expected, Vladimir Groisman headed the Cabinet. What do you think of the new Ukrainian Government?

Vladimir Putin: Nothing. I cannot think of the new Ukrainian Government, as I know nothing about it. I know nothing about its composition, about what priorities it will set, about what it is going to do. I only know what was planned to do and what was really done.

If I am not mistaken, the Ukrainian Government, the former Ukrainian Government now, approved a plan of action in late 2014, which consisted of nine points. Only two of them were implemented – and incompletely. I am not going to comment on them, you can find this information on the Internet.

The results are certainly harsh. In Russia, we have the expression “to shift challenges and problems to the people’s shoulders.” Today’s Ukraine is just the case. We say we have very high inflation – 12.9 percent. Yes, it is high, but it tends to decrease, even significantly decrease. But inflation in Ukraine is over 48 percent, can you imagine that? It is beyond all reason. Gas prices rose not by a few percent but by 3.3 times; heating prices – by over 50 percent, if I am not mistaken; electricity prices grew by some 53 percent last year and are expected to rise by another 63 percent this year.

I think it is economically unfeasible. Why? Because the share of population paying for gas, for example, was the lowest among CIS countries: I do not remember the exact number – something about 20 percent, Mr Miller told me about that. But if gas prices grow by over 3 times, nobody will pay then – that is the problem.

However, we need a stable and prosperous Ukraine. And we really hope that our expectations will come true. Although the crisis that began there due to the well-known EU Association Agreement is some kind of man-made, some kind of nonsense. I cannot understand why this was done. It seems to me that it just served as a tool for regime change, nothing more, and nobody cared for the people.

They signed an agreement; it entered into force: “This was a civilized choice.” What civilized choice are we talking about? Oligarchs are still in power. Some are trying to make a scandal concerning offshore assets, but in Ukraine, even the national leaders are billionaires and entrepreneurs with offshore companies. Okay, he earned a few billion and then handed the control over to a nice girl who, for example, a great lawyer – and so what? Did he forget about these offshore assets? Nonsense. Anyway, he will continue to control them and give orders on what should be done. De-tycoonisation? No way, oligarchy is becoming stronger. It is not even certain people to blame but the clan management system that has strengthened in recent years. And this is not just our assessment but also that of our Western partners. I am telling you, I know what I am talking about.

Nevertheless, we are interested in Ukraine getting back on its feet, in having a reliable partner and in ensuring that what is happening now, even in the economic sphere, does not happen. We have established zero customs tariffs with Europe for them, while [their] trade turnover with Europe fell by 23 percent and with Russia, by 50 percent. Who has gained from this? Why was this done? This is incomprehensible.

Yes, we introduced countermeasures in response to Ukraine joining the EU sanctions against Russia, but we introduced them half a year after they did. And then my colleagues tell me: “Why did you do this?” I say, “Listen, you, the EU, introduced sanctions against us and we did nothing for half a year; we were waiting for you to come to your senses.” “Well, this makes no difference to you, but it is hurting us because…” Well then, they should not have done that.

Nevertheless, I hope that the new government will draw conclusions from what has been happening recently and will act pragmatically and in the interest of the people, its own people, and not be guided by some phobia or another just to please some foreign agencies.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: We have been working for almost three hours now. They tell me over 3 million questions have been submitted to our programme’s website. The rate at which calls are coming in is also growing. Let us go to the processing centre. Tatyana, go ahead please.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you, Yevgeny. The rate at which calls are coming in, I can tell you, it is 2,500 calls per minute and 8,000 SMS and MMS messages per minute.

The Russian people are displaying close interest in the decision that you, Mr President, announced last week, i.e., the creation of the National Guard. We can put a call on this subject on the air. Abdurakhman Khavchayev from Dagestan. Go ahead please.

Abdurakhman Khavchayev: Good afternoon, Mr President.

I would like to ask what prompted you to issue an executive order on the creation of the National Guard? Why did the Internal Troops cease to meet the requirements? And will the National Guard have functions and powers that the Internal Troops did not have? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: What prompted me to do this? I should tell you that this question has been discussed for a long time and from various angles. The first and perhaps the most important consideration behind this decision is the need to place the circulation of weapons in the country under special control. If you paid attention, this decision involves not simply removing the Internal Troops from the Interior Ministry, but has to do with the fact that everything connected with weapons, with firearms, is concentrated within this agency. This includes all kinds of guard services, the licensing system, oversight of private security companies and also the Internal Troops themselves.

We hope to make this work more efficient and to minimise maintenance costs for various services. This position was also actively promoted by the Finance Ministry, by optimising primarily administrative and staff structures. This is also related to what happens and should happen in the Interior Ministry and the National Guard itself.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: The reform of the ministry of the Interior turned out to be fairly large-scale. Employees of the FMS and the FDCS, the Federal Migration Service and the Federal Drug Control Service are asking many questions: “Why have these services been disbanded?” We receive the following queries: “Tell us what will happen to FMS employees? There are no vacancies in the Ministry of the Interior, are there?” I will add a question of my own: Will this reform delay the issue of passports? It would be nice to know.

And one more question: the FDCS has been also disbanded. What will happen with the thousands of its employees? Mass-scale cuts and, hence, thousands of unemployed?

Vladimir Putin: No, there will be no mass-scale cuts. Certain streamlining is inevitable and I have already spoken about it but it will be carried out for the most part at the expense of servicing departments: staff, financial and so on.

As for the FDCS, the Federal Drug Control Service, this is what should take place there. Let us say it has an investigating unit. Naturally, it should merge with the Ministry of the Interior’s Investigating Department. The same applies to servicing units: accounting and so on. Some streamlining is possible at this point and the Ministry of Finance counts on it.

As for the operatives, the main workforce, we realise full well that they cannot be reduced. Nobody is going to do this by virtue of the tremendous tasks that this agency addresses. That said we believe we will manage to avoid overlapping of the Ministry of the Interior and the former FDCS, because the ministry’s task was to counter drug trafficking as well. What’s the point of two departments working in parallel? To the contrary, we hope for a positive change here.

The same applies to the Federal Migration Service. First, there will be no delays in the issue of passports or other documents; and, second, it is impossible to monitor migration flows without the Ministry of the Interior’s active involvement. This is simply impossible. Considering how sensitive migration processes are, the state should enhance its attention to them rather than decrease it.

In effect, these were the considerations for making these decisions. Let me repeat that we discussed them many times, in part, at the Security Council level.

Valeriya Korableva: Nagorno-Karabakh is another case in point. There are many Russians who are ethnic Armenians, and over one and a half million ethnic Azerbaijanis have Russian passports. It is now uncommon for them to live side by side, engage in joint ventures, and even become relatives. It goes without saying that what is now happening in Nagorno-Karabakh is a matter of grave concern for them. So the question is: “What prospects do you personally see for settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?”

Vladimir Putin: This is a very sensitive issue, and I believe that we should be very cautious in dealing with it, just as the well-known, “Do no harm,” principle in medical ethics goes. This is a long-standing issue, a conflict that has been frozen. Unfortunately there has been a surge in violence. We will do our best to resolve it and find solutions that would be acceptable for both parties.

Of course, Karabakh needs long-term solutions. Let me emphasise that they can be reached only through political means and compromise, which is a common thing to say, but I can’t think of anything else.

A few years ago it seemed that we had come close to a compromise. Unfortunately, it turned out that it was not the case. We will continue our international efforts and carry on bilateral cooperation along with activities to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

No matter what is said on this subject, Russia is interested in settling this issue, as we want to have full-fledged cooperation both with Azerbaijan and Armenia. You were right to mention that many people of Armenian and Azerbaijani origin live in Russia, there are millions of them. Thank God, there are no problems of this kind in Russia. Moreover, I know both Armenians and Azerbaijanis who, despite all the tragic events, maintain very good relations on a personal level. I believe that this is the right way to go. Russia will do what it can in this respect. Of course, the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan must have the final word in the resolution of this conflict.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: It is now time to move to another region – Tomsk. We are live with the Tomsk State University and our correspondent there is Pavel Krasnov.

Pavel Krasnov: Good afternoon to the Moscow studio.

Greetings from Tomsk. This is a city of students, researchers, one of the key research and educational centres in Siberia, as well as Russia in general.

We are now in Tomsk State University. This was actually the first higher educational institution the east of the Urals. It was established in late 19th century. Back then, the name of the university was much longer. It was called the First Siberian Tomsk Imperial State Classical University. Since then, the name got shorter, while the university itself grew and expanded. And it was not alone. Tomsk is now home to a number of major universities, and 20 percent of local residents are students. Of course, there are no students without faculty and researchers. They are all here today: students, faculty, researchers and those who dedicated their lives to academia and higher education. We invited them here, to the so-called professor room of Tomsk University’s research library.

I would like to start by introducing Professor, Doctor of Science, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Yevgeny Choynzonov, who heads the Tomsk Cancer Research Institute. Mr Choynzonov, you can now ask your question to the President.

E. Choinozov: Good day, Mr President!

Our country has been pursuing the reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences for two and a half years now. Nearly all research institutions of the country have been involved in the process, and a large medical research centre has been set up in Tomsk. However, the research community is divided on the deadlines, phases, and ways of reforming the Academy. Perhaps, it is premature to make even preliminary conclusions, but I would still like to ask you, Mr President, whether the first years of the reform have lived up to your expectations. And how effective, in your opinion, is the interaction between the Federal Agency for Scientific Organisations and the Russian Academy of Sciences?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: They have more so than not. One of our priorities when we launched the reform of the Academy of Sciences was to involve young people in doing research and development. We have recently seen a sharp rise in the number of young researchers. If I am not mistaken, young scientists under 35 now make up over 40 percent — almost 50, or 49 percent. And this is a good indicator, first of all.

Secondly, we have been talking about how to overhaul the way research institutes operate, how to make them focus on breakthrough areas. And here I also see positive changes, because, you know it better than me, modern science is developing mostly at the junction of subjects, and when we merge large research centres that survived from the Soviet days, we can end up with — and we do — very good, efficient, young and promising creative research teams working in breakthrough areas of modern science, working for the future.

And I believe we are acting very carefully because we introduced a moratorium on using real estate property, material values and all the property that was left from Soviet times. And it was in general done properly, I mean we did not lose anything. Still, we are following the path of reform, at least in the sense that we are uniting some fairly large and promising research centres. So there is headway, and it is positive.

Valeriya Korableva: Another question from Tomsk.

Pavel Krasnov: Thank you. I would like to add that Tomsk, a city that boasts vast scientific and educational traditions, is known not only in Russia but also far beyond its borders. Students from almost 50 countries study in the city’s universities, and there are even teachers from abroad. One of them is present here today. Eva Burbo, who was born in Lithuania and arrived in Tomsk after her studies in the Netherlands, would also like to ask her question to the President. Go ahead, Eva.

Eva Burbo: Good afternoon, Mr President. I am a graduate of the Maastricht University Faculty of Law. Honestly, it is a great honour for me to ask you a question, as I follow Direct Line every year.

My question has to do with security. Currently, the situation in Europe is uneasy following the recent events, and I no longer associate the word ”security“ with the word ”Europe,“ as the feeling of safety is lacking. I have worked here in Tomsk, at Tomsk State University, for half a year already and, frankly, I feel very comfortable here and, I can say with confidence, safe. Along with myself, there are also others among my colleagues from European countries, such as Italy and Germany. So, here is my question: what do you think of the possibility of more European students and teachers arriving in Russia in the near future? Is there any make it easier for them to be admitted to Russian universities? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Indeed, Europe is facing serious challenges, and you probably feel more safe in Siberia than, say, in Paris or Brussels. And I say this without any irony, just the opposite, I am totally serious, giving due credit to our colleagues, who are making attempts to effectively tackle terrorism amidst the uneasy conditions of European liberalism.

The freedom of movement, the Schengen Area and many other things related to today’s freedoms are used effectively by terrorists, and it is quite difficult to combat this under the present laws.

Russia is not part of the Schengen Area, and I think you can rightly talk about a greater feeling of security than in Europe as a person living currently in Tomsk in Siberia. We will definitely welcome foreign specialists and students arriving to work and study here, and I have to say, their number is growing. I do not know if there are restrictions – I believe there are none; there are only restrictions as to the publicly-funded spots for foreign students – they do exist, that is true.

In other words, the Russian budget – this mostly applies to developing countries – provides government-subsidised slots for free tuition, but otherwise for the most part, of course, you have to pay. However, I do not think there are any restrictions on paid forms of tuition. Still, if you see that something is hindering the increase in the number of interested parties, we will look at this again.

Regarding additional methods of enlisting, say, foreign specialists, these include grants; we have maintained mega-grant programmes for all scientists regardless of whether they are Russian or foreign or Russians living abroad. If their areas of research are of particular value to us, they come here, hire local personnel, employ domestic researchers and work. We will continue this practice.

I wish you success. All the best.

Valeriya Korableva: Thank you, Tomsk.

There is a question on our website related to the Timiryazev Academy. It comes from Yekaterina Lavrova, a postgraduate student at the Russian State Agrarian University. Here is her question: “In the current situation, when the issue of import substitution and training highly professional personnel is looming large in Russia, all of a sudden it became necessary to impound the lands of our Timiryazev Academy. Tell me please, is it really necessary to take land from an academy where unique tests are conducted, and what is rationale behind this?”

Vladimir Putin: Recently, just a few days ago, I was brought up to date on the situation by Andrei Fursenko, my aide and former science and education minister. We agreed that, first, the Timiryazev Academy will be left alone, although of course Moscow should develop and housing construction should continue. We will certainly discuss the issue with the Government. I do not think there will be any problems here.

Nevertheless, the Timiryazev Academy itself should make efficient use of the resources that is has, including its land resources. If this land was provided in its time for research and the for carrying out this primary activity, then this activity should be carried out efficiently.

Valeriya Korableva: Let us give the floor to Tatyana Remezova at the call centre.

Tatyana Remezova: Thanks, Valeriya.

Let us not waste time and answer a call. The editors are telling me that we have Natalia Kindikova from Moscow on the line.

Good afternoon, Natalia. What is your question, please.

Natalia Kindikova: Good afternoon, Mr President!

My name is Natalia Kindikova. I am speaking on behalf of all stakeholders from the Solnechnogorsk District in the Moscow Region, 850 families in total. We invested over 4.5 billion rubles in the construction of two villages, Bely Gorod and Nemetskaya Derevnya. The owners of the Sabidom company began the construction but then froze it, pocketing our money. Some stakeholders used their maternity capital to pay for housing. Despite hundreds of complaints to the Interior Ministry, criminal proceedings were not initiated for almost a year.

We understand that you cannot return our money to us, but could we ask you to order an investigation to find and punish the defrauders and to help us find reliable investors to complete the construction? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Have you turned to the law enforcement authorities?

Natalia Kindikova: Of course, we have.

Vladimir Putin: Could you repeat the address of the construction site?

Natalia Kindikova: The village of Nikolo-Cherkizovo in the rural town of Kutuzovskoye. Solnechnogorsk District, Moscow Region. Our non-existing village already has a name – Bely Gorod – and the second village, Nemetskaya Derevnya, is located nearby.

Vladimir Putin: I promise you I will make every effort to draw the law enforcement agencies’ attention to the problem. Now we do not know how this story will end, but we will do our best.

While we were speaking with you, I looked up at the running screen – not the running letters but the screen and saw a question about the National Guard: “The National Guard is subordinate to the President. Do you not trust the law enforcement ministers?” It is not about trust but about the fact that the National Guard has been established as a separate independent federal agency like a ministry, and all law enforcement ministries and agencies are subordinate to the President.

Valeriya Korableva: Now we will connect to one more location where our colleagues are working. This is Tula, Russia’s weapons capital. I am giving the floor to Anton Vernitsky.

Anton Vernitsky: Tula is Russia’s weapons capital. This is Rostec’s Instrument Design Bureau. Its workers call it the IDB. The latest Russian weapons are being assembled at this munitions factory. What is this complex called?

Remark: Bakhcha.

Anton Vernitsky: Bakhcha is a unique module that can be installed practically on any platform, from ICVs and airborne combat vehicles to warships. They fire practically automatically, without human involvement. And this is the Pantsir air defence complex, or, to be more precise, its combat element, which is also produced at this plant.

Such complexes protect the Russian skies, including the skies above Moscow. Some of them are now operating in Syria. They are located around the Hmeimim air base, where our Russian pilots are staying. Here we have gathered people from completely different occupations, and we will of course talk about the defence industry.

The first question comes from a young specialist.

Question: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Our operation in Syria demonstrated top-notch Russian-made weapons. How can we consolidate this success and sign more contracts with foreign countries for our arms supplies?

Vladimir Putin: This is what is going to happen.

First, recently we held a meeting of the Special Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation. In its open part I described what our weapon makers have achieved in conquering international arms markets.

We occupy a stable second place. The first place belongs to the United States: they sell more weapons than anyone else. We are lagging a bit behind the US but not much. The gap between us and those behind is huge, a factor of several times.

I believe last year we sold almost $15 billion worth of arms. The year before last was the same, and the last year we sold $14.5 billion worth of arms. The total portfolio of orders for the next few years amounts to $50 billion.

The interest in our weapons, especially (as you rightly pointed out) after or during the operation of our Aerospace Forces, and the Armed Forces in Syria in general, has sharply increased. We cannot meet the requirements of the foreign market in certain types of arms, for instance, air defence systems.

This is exactly why – or this is one reason, among others – we even had to build two new plants for the production of this hardware. It is even possible to say three, and I visited one of them recently. So, we are on the upsurge in this respect.

Valeriya Korableva: And how did our combat equipment manifest itself in Syria? Maybe some shortcomings were revealed?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, everything was revealed, including shortcomings. I must openly admit that there were quite a few. Specialists are now meticulously analysing them. Moreover, when military hardware was used in combat conditions, specialists from many plants came to the site to bring this hardware to the required condition. The work continues.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: We are waiting for another question from our arms manufacturers. Anton?

Anton Vernitsky: Mr President, you have often been to Tula, including this enterprise. As we talked to employees before going live on the air, we remembered a story where one worker asked you for a souvenir and wheedled a watch out of you. We tried to invite him to this call-in show…

Vladimir Putin: I have come without a watch today. (Applause.)

Anton Vernitsky: We wanted to invite this worker to the show but the management said he had left on an urgent out-of-town assignment. Even so, we have a question from the head of the department where this wonderful man works and where we have gathered today.

Vladimir Putin: First of all, give my best regards to your employee. I hope that he uses this timepiece.

Yury Kuznetsov: He does. He is now at Alabino, preparing the equipment for the parade.

Vladimir Putin: I see.

Yury Kuznetsov: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Yury Kuznetsov: I am Yury Kuznetsov, head of the heavy machinery assembly shop. My question will surely be of interest to all defence industry workers. At present, we have a lot of orders, a lot of work. We buy new equipment. A large number of young people have joined us. However, there has been frequent talk recently to the effect that it is necessary to reduce state defence procurement orders. Could it so happen that we will be left out of job and that, as in the 1990s, we will have to carry out conversion programmes such as manufacturing saucepans, frying pans, and other household appliances?

Vladimir Putin: Indeed, this is not an idle question. However, first of all, I should tell you that state defence orders will not be reduced. True, we are reducing the budgets of the Defence Ministry and some, in fact, practically all defence, security and law enforcement agencies. Yes, we are doing this in connection with well-known budgetary constraints. And this is absolutely natural in the present-day situation.

We should temper the appetites of defence, security and law enforcement agencies, just are we are doing with regard to civilian agencies. It is essential to make a more efficient use of budgetary resources. However, these constraints apply to current operations, I stress, current operations, not state defence orders. The state defence order will be fulfilled in full.

However, you are right in that the number of contracts and the utilisation of manufacturing capacities this year and next are at a peak level, but then it will start to fall as our Armed Forces are provided with modern arms and equipment, which should account for up to 70 percent. Naturally, the question of how to utilise manufacturing capacities in the future will come up.

Needless to say, we should think about this now, and not only we but also you should think about this. We should think about the conversion of enterprises. As defence enterprises are provided with modern equipment, a total of about 3 trillion rubles has been earmarked for this – we act on the assumption that the equipment what will be procured can also be used for conversion in the future. Perhaps it makes sense to give more leeway, so to speak, on certain positions with regard to the implementation of state defence orders… By the way, this is exactly what we are doing, but without any reductions.

We meet regularly, twice a year in Sochi to discuss these issues, among others. Why Sochi? We go and I take everyone along with me so as not be distracted by some other, also quite important issues. But we specifically discuss the implementation of state defence orders, the status of the industry and the objectives of modernising the Armed Forces, how these plans are implemented and what needs to be done to accomplish everything on time and with good quality.

Valeriya Korableva: Thank you, Tula. It is time we go to Natalya Yuryeva in the call centre.

Natalya Yuryeva: Thank you, Valeriya.

By now, we have already received nearly 50,000 MMS messages, nearly 12,000 video calls and over 10,000 video questions. Apart from serious questions, we have had unusual ones as well. Some have invited you, Mr President, to their birthday party, and some have asked to be invited to see you in the Kremlin.

Most of the questions come from the Central Federal District followed by the Southern and the Northwestern Districts. Interestingly, men sent more video questions than women for the first time. Children are also very active. But girls are the leaders here. Here is a video sent in by Alina, a first-grade schoolgirl.

Alina: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Hello.

Alina: My name is Alina, and I am in first grade. Could a woman become president of our Russia? Because daddy says that only Putin can deal with America. (applause)

Vladimir Putin: Alina, we should not focus on how to deal with America. We have to think about how to deal with our domestic affairs and problems, our roads, our healthcare, education, how to develop our economy, restore it and reach the required growth pace.

If we do all this, we will not have to deal with anybody because then – only in this case – we will be invulnerable people with bright prospects who want to live in this country and are proud of it. As for a woman president, maybe a woman would do best at tackling these problems.

Natalya Yuryeva: Here is another child’s video question.

Remark: What university does one need to go to become president? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Any one, the main thing is to be a good student.

Natalya Yuryeva: Now let us hear from not just one child, but a whole group of children.

Vladimir Putin: Certainly.

Question: Mr President,

We ask you on behalf of our hockey team to have a roofed-in ice palace built for our team and our city.

Vladimir Putin: I see the boys play bandy, which is also known as Russian hockey. How can we decline to help Birobidzhan to build a facility for Russian hockey? We will certainly do it.

I recently met with our bandy players. It is no exaggeration to say that they are outstanding: they score brilliant results year after year. On the whole, some decisions are made to promote that sport, but I think we should pay it greater attention than we do – bandy deserves it. We will see what can be done for that wonderful team in Birobidzhan.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: We have been working for more than three and a half hours. With your permission, we will ask you some questions we have selected ourselves while preparing for this programme.

Vladimir Putin: Look, there are two crawler messages on your screens, though without addresses: “Help save a palace, the face of our city. There is no money in the budget [to keep it up].” I am not sure whether such messages are recorded. We should find it, though there is no reverse address. What is it all about?

Valeriya Korableva: They sometimes do not specify their name but give the phone number to trace them.

Vladimir Putin: So much for that one. And another, from Hydrostroi or something like that. It passed very quickly, it was about wages five months overdue. We should see the address, all right?

Yevgeny Rozhkov: So there are questions from Ms Korableva and me, which we selected while preparing this programme. Alexander from Dubna asks: “How would you comment on Barack Obama’s admission that Libya was his biggest mistake?”

Vladimir Putin: First, it proves once again that the incumbent US President is a man of integrity. I am not being ironical in the slightest, because it takes courage to make such confessions. Even when he was a Senator, Mr Obama came down on the then Administration for the campaign in Iraq. Regrettably, when he became President, he made the blunders in Libya he has mentioned now. It is good and correct for my colleague to be brave enough to make such statements. Not everyone can do it. Whatever criticisms might be piled on him from all sides, it takes a real strong man to do so. This is good.

What is bad about it is that more blunders are following. There was a narrow escape from a repeat of the same error in Syria, and we do not know what the end will be. However, I would like to call your attention to the fairly positive turn which we have given the job of late: we are working together fairly intensively through the military, secret services and foreign ministries to find the way to settle the Syria conflict. I hope that these team efforts will bring us a positive result we will share, as was the case in other areas in the recent past.

Valeriya Korableva: Mr President, Nikita, a MIFI student asks what other enemies of Russia will be hit by our Aerospace Forces?

Vladimir Putin: You know, our first task is to deal a blow against sloppy work and bad roads in the broadest sense of this phrase. If we do this well and efficiently, if we achieve results, our Armed Forces will really be invincible and the best in the world, as we would like them to be: compact, inexpensive and modern. And then we will recall this wonderful song of the Soviet era: “The Red Army is the strongest from the taiga to the British seas.” It is the strongest of all, as it is but it should fortify itself in this position.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: First, about the information you saw on the screen: Hydrostroi, the enterprise and organization, are located in the city of Alagir, North Ossetia.

Vladimir Putin: I will make a note of it later.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Sure.

A question from Crimea, the city of Simferopol. Oleg Krasov asks you: “Mr President, could you promise to Crimeans to run for the presidency in 2018?”

Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much for the question but I think it is premature. In such cases I always say the same thing and will now repeat it again: we should be thinking today not about where and how we will work in the future, but how to justify the trust of our people today, how to achieve the goals that we are setting before us and how to fulfil the promises we have made. Relevant decisions will be made depending on future developments and performance.

Valeriya Korableva: One more question: “Is it convenient to have such a weak Government?” – Yelena Ivanova, Nizhny Novgorod.

Vladimir Putin: I don’t consider our Government to be weak. The Government and the Central Bank are operating in a professional manner. Of course, this is a complicated job. As you know I worked in the Government myself. I think this is the most complicated job we have, but also the most interesting one.

Needless to say, much has to be done to improve this work. We discussed this issue at length. In part, the Prime Minister and I spoke about this quite recently. Our shared opinion is that we lack a targeted approach in the work of ministries and departments. In other words, we have a common task but it is sometimes unclear how we are moving toward the goal. Sometimes everything gets bogged down in daily routine, whereas it is necessary to monitor progress towards the goal – for instance, such and such a ministry and department should reach such and such parameters by a certain time. We need to establish what was done in three months, half a year or during a longer period. In this case it will be clear who is working how, who is responsible for what and how they can be influenced. This is what we are definitely lacking, and we must upgrade the performance of not only the Government but also the entire state machinery.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Here is a very interesting question that arrived in an SMS: “Mr President, do you use profanities when you are certain that you are not being recorded? If so, to whom are they directed?”

Vladimir Putin: I do, sometimes, but only at myself.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: What about your subordinates?

Vladimir Putin: This means I am displeased with myself. I am guilty, perhaps I should not have said this, but there is no use denying it. This sin does exist in Russia. We will atone for it.

Valeriya Korableva: “We hear that the Russian Government has drafted a bill that allows the operation of so-called lottery houses. Under the law, they will have not only sprint lotteries but also game machines. Why then were casinos closed across the country 10 years ago only to be reopened?”

Vladimir Putin: Yes, indeed, this issue was discussed in the Government. We agreed not to do this. I will tell you frankly that I am against this decision, because no matter how it is disguised by modern gaming methods and procedures, these are essentially gambling machines all the same. We took this decision so as not to get our people addicted in this respect, but rather, to concentrate gaming zones in four or five places. By the way, if we take this decision on gaming machines, this will impair the capitalisation of these zones as well as interest in them, and people who invest money there as in a lucrative business will end up at a disadvantage, so from any perspective, it is better not to do this. And we will not.

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Well, we have been working for three hours and 38 minutes. Over 3 million questions have arrived. We have visited five population centres. Several criminal cases have been initiated, I am told. So our Direct Line has already produced some results. We hope that all officials who have watched our show have seen the problems of their subordinates, their people, have heard the concerns of average people and will promptly respond to your instructions, those that have already been issued and those that have yet to be issued. So thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.

We are wrapping up, but you know, before we finish, I would like to go to the screen again. I noticed a very interesting message and I will read it: “I wish you a long life. Granny Zina.” I believe Granny Zina wishes a long life not only to all those in this studio but also to all people of Russia. For our part, let us thank Granny Zina for this post and hope that she stays healthy and strong and that she is happy and healthy. Thank you all very much.

And another thing. Yesterday, I took a look at these questions. I saw that there are quite a few, not rude, but rather angry questions. For the most part, I share the concerns, to put it mildly, of the people who ask these questions, almost 100 percent. We are aware of this but we cannot always do everything the way we would like things to be done. Still, we will all work together actively to ensure that there are fewer problems and more happy days. Thank you very much!

Yevgeny Rozhkov: Thank you.