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Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, was interviewed by the editors of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in the Kremlin late last week. Following is an excerpt of that interview.

Q. Mr. President, one year ago, at the G-8 in Okinawa, you had a leading role. What will be your proposals this year in Genoa?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: It is true that last year my visit to Pyongyang was an important contribution to the dialogue with North Korea. The challenge we are expecting in Genoa (July 20-22) is a different one: It is the fight against poverty.

Russia is offering a substantial contribution to this cause, in particular to the alleviation of the debt of the underdeveloped countries. We are fourth among the eight that have canceled the debt of underdeveloped countries, and we are in first place in the percentage of cancellation in proportion to our gross domestic product.

If we can't overcome poverty, we will not be able to overcome the tensions that exist in today's world. We are certainly willing to collaborate with our G-8 partners in fighting illnesses, opening new markets and looking for alternative sources of energy -- even though Russia is rich in sources of energy. There is also the issue of the protection of the environment. After the unilateral U.S. withdrawal, we have to discuss the Kyoto Protocol.

Q. If there are nonviolent demonstrations in Genoa, how should they be answered?

PUTIN: Every democratic society permits the right to protest. It is a benefit when the position of whoever does not agree is presented to public opinion and discussed in a convincing manner. Nevertheless, disagreements should stay within the limits of the law. If not, the state should act to defend the citizens. Vandalism or other extreme acts are not permissible.

Q. Your meeting with George Bush in Slovenia was very cordial. Nevertheless, the U.S. insists on pursuing its anti-ballistic missile defense program. The Bush administration has made it clear they intend to abrogate the ABM treaty, which limits the creation of anti-missile systems.

PUTIN: It is true. The meeting went very well. Whenever the leaders of two countries with large nuclear arsenals meet, face to face, there is at once a rapport based on trust. Our meeting was an important step forward.

At this point I don't believe there is any need for the creation of an anti-missile system because the territory of the U.S. is not in any danger of an attack. The countries considered dangerous will need 20 or 30 years to build a credible offensive system.

At best, they now only possess old Soviet Scud-type missiles. To build a system that is modern (enough to threaten U.S. territory) it would be necessary to have new materials, new electronics and new testing facilities. In other words, it would be necessary for these countries to have a new economy -- and a new economy requires a new political system. At the present all this is impossible.

But I agree with Mr. Bush that we have to think about this issue and look to the future.

This does not imply that Russia is afraid. According to our information, none of the experiments attempted by the U.S. succeeded until the last one. So far, we are not intimidated, and we are ready to reduce our arsenal of nuclear warheads to 1,500 on each side by 2008 as long as the reduction is readily verifiable by both parties.

Q. What reaction would Russia have if the U.S. unilaterally abandons the ABM treaty?

PUTIN: If the U.S. abandons the ABM treaty, Russia retains the right to consider the START I and START II treaties invalid. We could install more atomic warheads on each missile. It is probable that other nations would do the same. There would be the real danger of a new arms race, and it would not be because of Russia.

Q. To prevent this from happening, is it possible to amend the ABM treaty so as to avoid a collision course with the U.S.?

PUTIN: I would like to stress that it is necessary to think of the future danger without jeopardizing present agreements. It is important to know who has the missiles, and what type of missiles they are. And we wish to carry on this research (on missile defenses) with Europe and the U.S. as long as the militarization of space is excluded.

To modify the ABM treaty? A clause for revision is included in the treaty, which has been already utilized. To be sure, neither I nor any other Russian statesman would take a decision against the interests of national security.

Q. What is the significance of the new Russia-China friendship agreement? Is it, perhaps, a new strategic alliance against the U.S.?

PUTIN: Overall, we share similar opinions on how to build a global security system. China holds the same position as Russia in regards to anti-ballistic defenses. But China's nuclear force is considerably inferior to ours, and Beijing takes its own positions independently of us.

However, the new agreement is one of friendship and collaboration. It is not a springboard to create a new military alliance with China or an answer to the American renunciation of the ABM treaty. After all, Russia has a treaty of friendship with Italy. Has this resulted in a military alliance?

Q. Russia is opposed to a second expansion of NATO. Are there conditions for a compromise?

PUTIN: The problem should be simple. In the West everyone says, "We don't want Europe divided; we don't want new Berlin Walls." Well, we agree completely.

But whenever NATO expands, the division does not disappear; it is only moved closer to our border. We hear NATO has become a political organization, but then we see it using force and not relying on the Security Council of the United Nations.

How can we build mutual trust in Europe if we create different levels of security? We could dissolve NATO, just as the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. But such a dissolution is not even considered. Or we could let Russia enter NATO to take part in the decision-making process. But this is not about to happen.

There could also be a different security mechanism as was once attempted with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. But those who do not want a climate of trust in Europe are pushing the OSCE toward the Caucasus and Central Asia. We are at the point of having to reflect together. Until Europe has the same security space for everyone, the conflicts of nations will remain.

Q. Do you think Lenin's remains ought to be removed from Red Square and buried in a cemetery?

PUTIN: This is an emotional issue, even if some would like to present it as political issue. The reality is that old Russians associate their life with the old order and Lenin's name. I believe that any problem, this included, should be resolved on the basis of a public consensus so there is not a rebellion from the inside.
Today Russian society has found general consensus. This agreement allows us to change the country, to modernize it, while at the same time changing people's mentality. When I see the majority of the people are ready to deal with the Lenin issue, then I will deal with it. I don't see this at the moment. Therefore we do not speak about it.

Q. Could you explain to us why Russia cannot resolve the Chechnya issue and respect human rights there? Even your generals admit to having violated those rights.

PUTIN: I do not deny that there could have been some abuses or irregularities during our actions, which I condemn. It is inevitable when we fight against terrorism. If the law is willingly violated we are ready to try our military personnel. We are not ashamed to talk about it to the international mass media.

But you are telling me that in Russia we are not able to resolve the Chechnya problem. Are you able to resolve the problem of the Balkans? NATO has attempted to resolve it by bombing the area. So force can be used in that instance but not in our case? Why not in Chechnya?

We are responding to aggression by Islamic fundamentalists, and on this issue we have the support of the people. We are defending our territory.

The U.S. is requesting that the terrorist Osama Bin Laden be handed over to them. Yet the people we are dealing with in Chechnya are also under his command. They receive support, they are trained in his camps and commit hideous crimes, of which the international media know nothing. How are they better than Bin Laden? Who has the moral right to ask us not to fight these criminals?

Q. As soon as you arrived in the Kremlin, you took on the oligarchy which you said had taken too much power. But in order to do that, is it necessary to limit the freedom of the press?

PUTIN: A society that does not have freedom for the mass media does not have a future. This is an undeniable fact. It is certainly possible to get rid of the oligarchs without restricting the mass media. But we are talking about different issues.
We have to be clear about the case of one oligarch (Vladimir Guzinksy), who has stolen a billion dollars from the state and has no intention of giving it back. He intends to use mass media to blackmail the state.

Our task today is to create the conditions by which the media will be independent and self-financing.

Q. Mr. President, does your experience in the KGB help you today, or is it cause for regret?

PUTIN: I worked in foreign intelligence. I studied in a counter-intelligence school but was soon sent to the Directorate of Foreign Affairs. I graduated from that service and was sent on missions outside the U.S.S.R. This opened my mind.

Employees of this directorate would spend most of their life in foreign countries. They would know what was going on in the U.S.S.R. but could also see the reality of countries of Western Europe. This opened my mind.

For this reason I believe my experience was a positive one. We should remember that in the '90s I had different experiences, in St. Petersburg (where Putin worked with the reformist mayor, Anatoly Sobchak -- ed.) and in Moscow (where Putin worked under Yeltsin -- ed.).

I can understand that this may be less exciting than life as a secret agent, but I am sorry to disappoint you. I have never done that.

(c) 2001, Corriere della Sera. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 7/17/01)