Evening of surprises with a hospitable president

In the middle of the Beslan crisis, Vladimir Putin took time to welcome Western journalists to his Moscow residence. Mary Dejevsky reports from Novo-Ogarevo
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The Independent Online

The reception hall was all white, with crystal chandeliers of a simple design and restrained wall panel details picked out in gilt. The Russian and presidential flags stood at one end. The long table was set for what Americans would call dessert. At each place, a delectable sponge and fruit confection was set out on a white china plate, decorated only with a small, crowned double-headed eagle - the Russian crest. Stands were piled high with perfect oranges, apples, plums and grapes, all washed super-clean.

The reception hall was all white, with crystal chandeliers of a simple design and restrained wall panel details picked out in gilt. The Russian and presidential flags stood at one end. The long table was set for what Americans would call dessert. At each place, a delectable sponge and fruit confection was set out on a white china plate, decorated only with a small, crowned double-headed eagle - the Russian crest. Stands were piled high with perfect oranges, apples, plums and grapes, all washed super-clean.

We stood behind our designated chairs, slightly awkwardly, pens, notepads, tiny cameras and tape-recorders at the ready, waiting for the President to enter. No one had said what the format would be. No one had asked for questions in advance. We did not know whether there would be a long, prepared statement and time for only a couple of prepared questions. All we knew was that a meeting with President Putin that had been tentatively scheduled for the end of a weekend conference on the future of Russia, sponsored by the Russian news agency Novosti and a Moscow-based think-tank, was - contrary to everyone's expectations - actually taking place.

Our meeting with the Russian President on Monday night had begun as a suggestive blank space in a conference programme several weeks before - "to be arranged". It had been confirmed the previous evening as we were completing a flying visit to Mr Putin's home city of St Petersburg. We had expected that it would take place in the Kremlin. Instead, we were taken by bus through the mushrooming south-western suburbs of Moscow, to the Rublevskoe highway, where giant new shopping centres and vast blocks of good-quality new housing - for private ownership - abut the ever-shrinking expanse of birch forest and meadows.

This is the prestige region, where Moscow's elite live. It is where Politburo members had their residences in the last years of the Soviet Union and where Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin both resided. Now, the political elite has to live cheek by jowl with the new rich. Mansions of all designs are sprouting on both sides of the road: some ostentatious and garish, others discreetly painted green and brown mostly concealed by trees. These new houses, perversely called kottedzhi in Russian, have proliferated almost to the solid blue fence that surrounds the presidential compound.

Half-an-hour out of town (with a police escort to negotiate the dense rush-hour traffic), our bus turned sharply into a curving road clearly marked with a no-entry sign. This was Novo-Ogarevo, where the President lives when in Moscow. (His equivalent of Chequers is two hours out of town.) We had to get out to pass through security: passports were checked, there was an X-ray arch, a quick inspection of handbags, but no handing in of mobile phones (as at Downing Street). A burly guard in fatigues appeared with a pudgy spaniel which looked more like a pet than a sniffer dog. Back in the bus, through another gateway, past dark soaring pines and into a semicircular drive.

The residence is a three-storey mansion in the neo-classical style, yellow and white, with four large columns and a Russian crest. The Russian tricolour flew at half-mast on the roof (it was the first day of mourning for the dead at Beslan). We were ushered into a room with easy chairs, a billiard table and a plasma screen television, showing the Russia channel. Snacks and soft drinks were laid out on the tables. At 8.30pm, half an hour late, we were led up to the first floor and the white reception room.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin came in briskly from a side entrance, with his chief aide, Alexei Gromov, at his side. He smiled genially, much more warmly than you ever see on television - almost as though receiving personal guests to dinner - and immediately asked us to sit down. He noted that the tragedy in North Ossetia was bound to cast a pall over our meeting, but that he had decided not to cancel it. Half a dozen waiters circulated, pouring tea.

He asked for questions immediately - first come, first served, and whoever caught his eye. The questions covered the gamut: Russia's experience of terrorism; criticism of Russia's Chechnya policy; inter-ethnic disputes; the prospects of the break-up of Russia; Ukraine joining Nato and/or the EU.

The Russian President's answers to each question were highly detailed; sometimes historical in approach, always analytical - in the manner, but not the substance, of the brighter Communist officials of yesteryear - and totally spontaneous. Mr Putin has something of Bill Clinton's quickness of mind and ability to marshal observations from all manner of sources and experiences to make his case.

There were no questions he declined to answer; none even that he scorned or deflected. He had clearly defined views on everything he was asked about - from the violence in the North Caucasus, including Chechnya, to the ethnic problems inherited from the Soviet Union, through the Yukos affair, Russia's continuing dependence on oil and raw materials to shore up its economy, the slowness of economic and political reform, freedom of the Russian media, terrorism in general, the US election, the expansion of Nato and the EU, to the situation in Iraq.

He took the opportunity of a question on freedom of the press to launch a broadside at Rupert Murdoch, asking whether his press was really an example of media freedom. At the same time, he had kind words for President Bush and for Mrs Thatcher, whom he said he had met three or four times.

On Russia's battles with terrorism he said: "We have had 50 years of fighting terrorism. Militants used the same techniques in Afghanistan against Soviet troops and we all know who was behind them then ... But I wouldn't claim that the Soviet Union was exactly an angel either. The point is that terror has been unleashed and now we are all trying to combat it jointly."

On inter-ethnic disputes and criticism of Russia's Chechnya policy he retorted: "No one can accuse us of not being flexible in our dealings with the Chechen people. In 1995, we granted them de facto autonomy, but what happened was complete chaos, unbelievable violence.

"The break-up of the Soviet Union exacerbated many conflicts," he reminded us. "There are 2,000 such conflicts dormant that could flare up instantaneously." He was equally robust on speculation of a future break-up of Russia, stating: "I won't allow this to happen because I know what this would mean for Russian citizens."

On the prospects of Ukraine joining Nato and/or the EU he said: "If Ukraine thinks it is the right thing to do, we won't oppose it, in fact we would support it, because we favour the development of a European space." Far from damaging a rapprochement between the former Soviet republics, Mr Putin said, "this could help foster a major nucleus of the EU with common standards of communications and other things. We want Russia to have the prospect of close co-operation with the EU."

But he warned that Nato was a different question and he flatly ruled out closer links with what he said was an undemocratic organisation. "It is no longer an enemy organisation, but we don't consider it an efficient organisation from the economic and military point of view. We see it as a political organisation. It is not a very democratic organisation in its inner workings. In fact, I would say it is precisely the opposite." He complained in particular that Nato "didn't warn us that it was sending four to five fighter planes to Latvia to patrol the border ... We're partners, we are supposed to consult, talk to each other. This sort of negligence annoys us. Why do it?"

Mr Putin also expanded on the state of Russia's economy, saying: "No one disputes the free market is more efficient than a planned economy. But mechanically transplanting these ideas in Russia has had the effect of discrediting many of these ideas in the minds of the people. Compare the difficulties faced by Reagan and Thatcher when they embarked on their reforms. Even though their states functioned effectively and laws could be enforced, these reforms brought Thatcher's government almost to collapse and without the Falklands war, it might not have survived."

On the crisis consuming Yukos Mr Putin said that Russia has a strong interest in not allowing Yukos to go bankrupt, but that "it is the duty of the tax service to obtain what they should legally be paid". Yukos had "set up an illegal scheme to avoid tax".

On the question of media freedom, Mr Putin said: "It is as hard to define press freedom as it is to define democracy." He asked us to consider Mr Murdoch's empire: "Is this free, or evidence of something rather different?"

The President saved his warmest praise for his US counterpart, George Bush. "Even though we have our differences, he is a very predictable and reliable partner," he said. "Above all, he is human. He is a good, solid human being, and I like him as a colleague."

Mr Putin came across as sincere and approachable, but also showed flashes of anger, such as when he insisted that the real intention of militants across Russia's southern border was "nothing less than the break-up of Russia" or lambasted Western reports for not calling the hostage-takers in North Ossetia "terrorists". Then, he would become animated and intense, clenching his fists and waving his hands. But his anger always appeared purposeful and controlled. This was not Nikita Khrushchev slamming his shoe at the UN, nor yet Boris Yeltsin after over-indulging. In person, the Russian leader seems much more human and less cold than he often appears on television. But in mind, as in physique, he gave an impression of neatness and discipline, of being comfortable in his skin and very self-contained.

Most of our 25-strong international group spoke Russian, which he clearly appreciated, although there was consecutive translation into English. Perhaps the most striking aspects of the whole occasion were first his energy and stamina - he called for the last two questions at 15 minutes past midnight, having welcomed us at half past eight. We were flagging by that time, hands stiff from note-taking, pens running out of ink. Second, there was his quiet confidence. For all the Russian and Western commentary on his authority through the past two weeks of terrorist attacks in Russia - two downed planes, the Moscow bomb and the bloodbath at Beslan - this was not a man who appeared to be in the least political trouble. He did not have to weigh his words, nor look over his shoulder. This was a man who was serious, who had thought about things, and was beholden to no one. If there was, or is, any Kremlin challenge to his authority, he seems unconcerned.

As Mr Putin was about to take the last question, a mobile phone rang. It played the Russian national anthem, which has restored the old Soviet tune. Apparently it belonged to one of Mr Putin's two aides. Perhaps it is too fanciful to think that it might have been the President's own.

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