- What time do you stick to in your daily routine!
- Local. It all depends on the place where I am on each particular day. In Moscow it’s Moscow time, and in the Kamchatka Peninsula, it’s Kamchatka time. It cannot be otherwise. Each month is split almost evenly in two parts. I spend two weeks in the capital and as many in business trips. The proportion may shift either way occasionally, but I do my utmost to preserve it. I cope quite easily with changing time zones. The jet lag is not a great problem. It is most important to have a good sleep when you need it. Flights to the Far East are long. It might seem there is enough time to have good rest on board, but sometimes I have to work on the way. Then it may be really tough. Especially if a process meeting or working conference begins the moment I’m off the plane’s ladder. No chance of taking a nap then. You have to get engaged in a conversation right away, to persuade people. You need energy for that. Just recently some colleagues of mine and me tried to reckon how much time we spent in flight over the past two years. And it turned out we had been on board airliners for a little more than a month.
- The Aeroflot airlines must’ve given you the status of its honorary passenger?
- My relationship with the national air carrier is arranged in a different fashion. At the beginning of December I met with the company’s chief Vitaly Saveliev to discuss what is to be done to make flights to the Far East affordable to all. It is essential to minimize the effects of Transaero’s dropout to ensure there should be no reduction in the number of flights and the original basic tariffs remain unchanged.
- But Aeroflot is not a charity organization. It cannot afford to operate at a loss.
- Yet the company’s management reacted with understanding. The so-called flat rate that remains unchanged year round irrespective of seasonal fluctuations will be 20,000 rubles (roughly $290) for economy class two-way tickets on flights from Moscow to Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. The current fare is 18,000 rubles. The growth will be below inflation. You are quite right, though. Aeroflot has not been relieved of its task of operating at a profit. The air carrier has received from the state the most profitable international routes previously operated by Transaero. But the social liabilities are to be remembered, too. People in Russia’s remote regions should by no means feel isolated from the mainland.
- What places do you have to fly to most often?
- Saying “have to” is not quite appropriate in this context. It is always a pleasure for me to travel to the Far East. I can explain why. In Moscow it is far harder to see the effectiveness of the job you do. You may be excelling at work from dusk to dawn, but after a week you may look back and find it hard to answer if you have accomplished something really useful. Many processes are very time-consuming and issues are addressed too slowly…
- In Russia’s individual territories it’s all different. True, the tasks there are local, but achieving a specific result is far easier. And when you see the fruits of collective efforts, you cheer up somewhat. Now a straight answer to your question: I visit the Primorye Territory most often.
- That’s the capital of the Far East, isn’t it?
- We have only one capital, Moscow. Surely, the Far East is the region’s centre of attraction. From different points of view: the concentration of economic interests, logistics projects and the existence of a federal university… Also, Primorye has two accelerated development zones. Another two such territories have been created in the Khabarovsk Territory and the Amur Region. The island of Sakhalin still has none, but I believe that we will manage to fill that blank spot before long. The island’s new governor, Oleg Kozhemyako, is a very creative personality. He has already made his proposals we will try to translate into reality in the near future. One project is for creating an Alpine Skiing resort in Sakhalin, another is for the development of the Kuril Islands, and a third, for making the area self-sufficient in foods. Bringing supplies from the mainland is too costly. It’s a long way…
We have plans for opening a tourism-oriented accelerated development zone in the Kamchatka Peninsula. This is a unique region. Other places on the globe as beatify are very few. Regrettably, this potential remains mostly untapped. There is virtually nothing in terms of services to offer to potential holiday-makers. Hotels that can offer their guests more or less decent services are scarce. The Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky sea port is in appalling condition. Not a single cruise ship will dare drop anchor there. And asphalted roads are easy to count on the fingers. The sole way of getting to the world-famous Valley of Geysers is by helicopter. And that’s a rather costly means of transportation and not very reliable due to the whims of the local weather. But developing the tourist industry in the Kamchatka Peninsula is a vital need. That’s a potential bonanza nobody has tapped to this day.
- When was your first visit to the Far East?
- Not very long ago, in 2004. Before that I’d lived in the Urals. Then Vladimir Putin invited me to take the position of Russia’s Natural Resources and Ecology Minister. Shortly after my appointment a colleague of mine in the Cabinet in those days and a good friend of mine today, German Gref, asked me to keep him company on a trip to the Far East. That’s a land worth getting familiar with; this part of the country is very special, he told me. I’ve been there many a time since, but I explored it well enough only when I became a deputy prime minister and presidential representative. My appointment coincided with a heavy flood in the Khabarovsk Territory, the Amur Region and the Jewish Autonomous Area which proved the worst in the whole of last century.
- From the frying pan into the fire, the saying goes. And you were plunged into a mighty whirlpool, I reckon.
- That was a great challenge! From the standpoint of the tight deadlines we were obliged to meet by virtue of the circumstances and the need to make fast and effective decisions. The effects of flooding were to be eliminated right away to ensure not a single person be abandoned on the streets without a roof over head. You may remember that the July 2013 flood hit an area with a population of 200,000. Twelve thousand families went homeless. President Vladimir Putin flew to the affected territories himself. I accompanied him on the trip. As I look back on the situation now, I can say that I found the stamina and firmness of the Far Eastern people really amazing. I saw no dismay or hysterias. True, many had tears in their eyes, but never without a reason. The people braced up and displayed great courage to cope with the misfortune that afflicted them. They were well-organized and efficient. If only we had worked in that way all the time, the country we live in would’ve been a whole lot different now. The precision and pace of work exceeded by far the mode in which civil servants and other functionaries operate normally. It was then that Putin made a decision to give the powers of a deputy prime minister and presidential representative in the region to one person. In September 2013 I quite often put through a phone call to Finance Minister Anton Siluanov in the evening to request funding for some temporary dam that was being put up at the moment and the money would be transferred the next morning. There was no other way of doing the job right in a situation like that. Natural disasters are not something one can afford to be light-minded about. They can’t be asked to wait a little bit until all the papers have been agreed and signatures to them collected.
- Are you saying we are successful only in extreme situations?
- Possibly, this is a special feature of Russian mentality. When everything is calm and bright we are sloppy workers. We get mobilized only when we are cornered… The government disbursed 40 billion rubles for the elimination of the effects of natural disaster and another two billion rubles or more was raised in relief aid for the victims by charity organizations and individuals. Concerted action was successful. New homes instead of the ruined ones were put up by the end of September 2014, as it had been originally expected. The last piece of work still to be done is called “minimization of risks of future floods.” This theme is still to be addressed. A large number of related issues are competences of the Natural Resources Ministry and Energy Ministry. We are to take precautions against likely unpleasant surprises in the future, although mother nature is much stronger than us, human beings, and one can never say we are capable of protecting ourselves from any calamities.
- Which of the problems in the Far East are the most acute ones?
- You may be surprised, but I would point to the human factor above all. We may be doing a lot for the sake of developing the territories, but any efforts may end in failure, if the people have no faith in the seriousness of the declared plans and fail to join the common effort. Quite frequently one may come across this type of attitude: what’s the reason for toiling away days on end knowing in advance that outsiders from Moscow or St. Petersburg will “skim the cream.” We have been doing our utmost not to give the slightest reason for such thoughts. On the other hand, the one who agrees to give in at once takes a very vulnerable position. I often ask this question: you’ve lived here all your life, you know everybody and everything. Why do you give up without a fight? We create conditions, but it is up to you to seek and attain victory. I cannot imagine a situation in which someone in the mid-1990s would come from the capital to my hometown of Perm, where I was already doing business and start dictating terms to me. I grew up there and it was there that I made myself a man. The city was home to my parents, my children, my sister and my friends… I am not saying that we did not let in any outsiders. What I mean is different: we are at home and this makes us stronger.
That’s the way it should be in the Far East. The people who live in the region have no right to feel themselves as fly-by-night drifters! This land is theirs. True, it’s hard to reconfigure people’s minds. Many still keep saying to themselves: we are here to earn cash fast. As soon as we’ve saved enough, we’ll move to central Russia. But another trend is already gaining strength. The people see the changes happening in the Far East and the conditions being created here for enterprise and they begin to realize that nothing like that can be found elsewhere in Russia. The prospects are lucrative, indeed.
- For instance?
- The accelerated development area offers a five-year tax break. The social insurance tax is far lower. There exists a free customs zone regimen. Plots of land can be leased straight from the management company without going through an ordeal of obtaining permissions from the municipalities. Fewer taxes and less time that has to be wasted on bureaucratic procedures creates very different conditions for doing business.
- But do people really believe that? Any tax break, even a five-year long one, will end some day and everything will have to be paid back many times over. Everybody remembers well the place where free cheese is on offer…
- Listen, the accelerated development area has seventy five applications already.
- Is that a lot?
- It’s the newly-founded enterprises that I am talking about. Is this what one calls few?
- Size matters.
- The overall private investment stands at 492,000 billion rubles. You won’t find parameters as high in any other federal district. As you may remember, some were telling us just recently – give us trillions of budget money and an economic boom in the Far East will be more than guaranteed. That’s an erroneous approach, to my mind. First the money is to be earned. Ours is a fundamentally new model. Private businesses find it lucrative to invest in new projects.
- And how much is the region to get from the federal budget by 2018?
- Forty two billion rubles. The figure remains unchanged, but there have been attempts at cutting it.
- You managed to beat back the attacks, didn’t you?
- Not me. The president held a special meeting. He listened to our arguments and examined the Finance Ministry’s stance to say: No cuts in spending on the Far East. And everybody got quiet. It turns out that per one ruble of budget funding we have ten or more rubles of private investment. A very decent proportion, I believe. For instance, gold mining in the Selemdzhin district of the Amur region is getting 126 billion rubles from private investors, while another 14 billion rubles comes from the federal budget. At the Tayozhny Mining and Ore Dressing Combine and the stevedore complex at the Vanino sea port the situation is basically the same. True, some other projects are not proceeding as smoothly. But we are determined to address issues. Step by step.
- And yet the exodus of the population to the mainland is continuing.
- Over the past two years it has dwindled by half to less than 12,000 people a year… You can easily calculate the percentage rate: the region has a population of 6.211 million.
Look, we will cope with the task. Today’s negative migration rate will get positive. There is a great demand for skilled labour in industries, in construction, in agriculture and in the fishing industry.
- Can the idea of giving a hectare of land in the Far East for free to each Russian who would like to resettle to the Far East become a new Stolypin style resettlement program?
- Sometimes I find it rather amusing to see our proposal being criticized from the right and from the left. Some say: what’s the point of starting all this business nobody needs? That’s not true. It does make sense. Others claim that granting land alone is not enough. Three should also be a lump sum for resettlement. I always ask people not to be in a rush. All decisions must have a solid economic groundwork to stand on. We undertake only what we can cope with.
The law will take effect next May. Will there follow an influx of those eager to come and settle down in the Far East from other regions? I hope there will. Although the ultimate aim of the idea of distributing free land was not that, but creation of greater economic freedoms for our fellow citizens. The fewer the restrictions the individual has to abide by in doing business, the faster and more effective he is. That’s how competition works around the world. We should wait and see what will come of our land distribution idea. Let’s try first.
In the phrase “Everybody who wants to can get a free hectare” the key words are “everybody” and “free”. But still more important is what each individual is going to do to the granted plot. No free distribution to all who would like to have it “just in case”. For instance, if the owner cuts the trees, he will be obliged to plant and grow new ones. Or pay a compensation to the federal budget. Confiscation from those who crudely abuse land management regulations will be possible.
A firm obstruction will emerge in the way of all negligent land owners. But it is important to remove all hurdles in front of the diligent ones.
Have you ever tried to take a plot of land some place around Moscow? Or around Tver, Yaroslavl or Vladimir? It makes no difference. When I held a position at the presidential staff, people were coming to me with thick volumes of papers illustrating their ordeal.
- Were those thriller or police stories?
- Horror movie plots! I met someone who had spent five years trying to obtain permission to get a plot of land. To no avail. Apart from the red-tape saga he had written. We wasted much time, effort and energy of a person who had wished to do something useful. Our main task is to reduce the bureaucratic procedures to the minimum. Attitudes to this idea may vary, but the fact that everybody is free to enter the Дальний Восток.рф website, select a plot of land, draw its borders file an application within fifteen minutes and get a confirmation is a different reality, if you don’t mind my saying so.
- Have you selected a hectare for yourself?
- Honestly, I didn’t have the time to.
- Isn’t it a violation of the “follow me” rule?
- I am a responsible person. Taking a plot of land would make sense only if you are really to work it in earnest. I don’t have the time for that. In the future I would eagerly have a plot on the Kuril Islands. The place is incredibly beautiful. Kamchatka is a wonderful place. So are Sakhalin and Primorye… Clearly, there is no chance of privatizing lands that belong to the Defense Ministry or enjoy special protection as wild life preserves. No other restrictions apply, though. I have in mind the vacant plots of land good for building housing, starting a private forestry, farming or other business… The Cabinet of Ministers has supported our draft. Now it’s the State Duma’s turn.
- Is the force of retardation in the bureaucrats’ minds hard to overcome?
- I’ve gained certain experience in that respect. But it was all very different eleven years ago, in the early days of my ministerial career… I still remember the moment I came across unexplainable resistance. I thought I was doing something very useful and crucial. Outside meddling was incredible! Pressures from all sides. I felt as if I’d got involved in hand-to-hand combat. I had a word with a senior colleague of mine, more experienced and far-sighted. I asked, “Tell me, please, what’s going on?” And I heard in reply: “Who told you a red carpet will be rolled out in front of you for doing good job? Get ready to fight. Or bow out, if you aren’t ready to.” I agreed but life hasn’t turned easier.
- Each of us has one’s own idea of what is true and what is good. Even people who see the same goal can choose different ways of achieving it… People tend to oversimplify the process. They easily rate civil servants as honest or corrupt. The problem is it is not personal or private interest alone that may affect decisions. In some cases an official may be reluctant to quarrel, to make enemies. Others lack willpower or the certainty the choice is correct. Many factors may interfere. That is why the skill of achieving the identified target is so important.
Let me say once again, everything depends on one’s internal choice. I am still unable to put up with other people’s indifference to their duties and with the lack of proper professional skills. Whenever I see that somebody is unable to bear responsibility for one’s decisions or fails to cope with one’s competencies, I surely don’t keep quiet. At first I may try to explain this is not the right way to go about the business. And I will surely devise a way of getting rid of those who are reluctant to understand.
Yes, I’d like to believe in common sense, in kindness, and in matters eternal, but one has to recognize that in making this or that decision a great deal of filth is involved. Cronyism is frequent. The decision-maker on whom the future of a project depends may be approached by some important people, who would start complaining they would have great problems if certain measures begin to be taken. So will you please do something about that…
Here’s an example from my career at the Natural Resources Ministry, that period of it when we were changing the ecological legislation. Good Lord! Pressures from businesses were persistent and systemic. Private owners did not wish to invest a cent. It was far simpler for them to nip the initiative in the bud. It was real war, not child’s play, and it came to an end just recently. A corresponding decision was made at the state level.
Such instances are many. Quite often civil servants’ decisions are influenced by a conflict of interest. Take the fishing industry. You may have seen some stormy discussions, some of them at the State Council level. A great deal of inconsistencies there, too. Say, some people have obtained quotas for building processing industries but have done nothing. Yet they are reluctant to give the quotas away to let others enter the market. Intrigues follow…
Another example. Up to half of the fish on the world market is mariculture products. Fish grown at special fish farms. In Russia, though, its share is about one percent. In other words, there is a 50-fold growth potential. A law on mariculture has been adopted. I went to Vladivostok to see why nothing is being done to develop the industry to instantly hear stories about a dozen obstacles that hinder the law’s normal operation. I asked my counterparts at the federal agency for fisheries Rosrybolovstvo: “Listen, folks, hadn’t you known all that before? Isn’t it you immediate duty to oversee compliance with the law and its implementation? What kind of response are you expecting from me?”
Or take the law on regional investment projects. There had been a direct instruction from the Russian president to establish benefits for new projects in the Far East. The State Council even discussed some specific parameters how big an individual investment should be to entail preferences. Next, there followed the same old song and dance. There emerged a law that proved utterly unusable in practice. To obtain the status of an investment project a business has to go through the Minotaur’s labyrinth. People are wandering inside it for years to quit without ever getting a way out. What is to be done about this? The president’s instruction has been ignored. The law does not work. I’ve convened five process meetings on the issue. Now some amendments have been submitted to the State Duma. Possibly we’ll get things going at last…
Too many redundant efforts have to be exerted to correct some bureaucrats’ flaws. It might be a good idea to introduce certain yardsticks to gauge the effectiveness of civil servants’ performance. There was an attempt to introduce a KPI for government employees.
- Was it aborted?
- Yes. It sank into the quick sand somehow. It was Mikhail Abyzov’s idea… When we received instructions to develop the Far East, my colleagues and yours truly stopped to think in earnest: what should be done first thing? The simplest solution looked like this: load thirty freight trains with money to capacity and may them roll along the Trans-Siberian to the final destination. Distribute the money to all those who need it and there will be paradise on earth. But that would be the silliest thing to do. Nonsense! There are no such trains at hand and there is nothing to load them with.
We decided to act in a different way. It is not money but people that can develop a territory. The question was whether we would be able to create a friendly working environment. As few unreasonable inspections, far-fetched probes and redundant coordination procedures as possible… Number one commandment and the most important of all: “Thou shall not meddle!”
Civil servants’ effectiveness is the core of the problem. Everybody around should feel one’s responsibility for doing the job properly and never put up obstructions to other people. These days, when the crisis is afoot, this is number one requirement. The 42 billion rubles being invested in the development of the Far East is to be spent precisely on creating acceptable conditions for businesses: infrastructures, roads, high voltage power lines…
Once again: we are not using budget money to launch economic projects. That’s a task for businesses. The constituent territories of Russia must extend a helping hand, if need be.
I ran a private business myself. If you put your own money at risk, you have to spend days and nights in search of a solution to the problem until you find a way out. Your own life and the lives of those who trust you depend on it. The whole life may collapse.
- Isn’t a civil servant’s destiny basically the same?
- Alas, no! His degree of responsibility is much more vague. It is a multi-tier system. There is always a chance of hiding behind somebody’s back. We are obliged to grow to a level where any non-transparent move will entail a harsh response from those around. As soon as somebody starts pulling the blanket to the side, there should follow a quick slap on the wrist: “What is it you are doing, man? The interests of the state lie elsewhere!”
- Do you believe we’ll see the day?
- I can say with certainty: today we are closer to this condition than we were twelve years ago, when I began the career of a federal official. I still remember the miracles that had been happening under the production sharing agreements. That type of behavior is far less common these days, but crystal clarity of decision making is still very far away.
Just recently I invited a Far Eastern official for a talk. The man works normally by and large, but the commercial interests he had in the past and his current civil service job overlap. I told him he had 24 hours to make up his mind. I said to him: “My dear friend, either you quit business altogether or step down. Don’t you discredit yourself and let us down. Don’t try to sit on two chairs. The outcome is always bad.”
- Did he turn an attentive ear to what you told him?
- He did.
- But strictly speaking you have two chairs to sit on, don’t you?
- Please remember that both positions are not in business. True, I have an office in the white marble building of the Russian government in Moscow and in the building of the Russian presidential staff in Staraya Ploshchad square. At this point keeping the functions of a presidential representative and deputy prime minister in the hands of one person is reasonable, although I find it rather hard to split myself between the two duties. Sometimes I am curious how to go about this business – crosswise or lengthwise. But, seriously speaking, the basic tasks I have to address in both cases are the same – the accelerated development of the Far East.
Some issues require closer attention. The construction sector is a global problem. Here we go: Petropavovsk Kamchatsky’s new airport was to go operational back a year ago; the Vostochnhy spaceport; the Narva automobile tunnel; two semi-finished hotels in Vladivostok; the oceanarium on Russky Island… The contractor Dalspetsstroi has a very bad reputation. Very bad! Whatever they may undertake to build invariably goes wrong. I’ve met with the chief of Russia Spetsstroi agency Aleksandr Volosov to ask him a very simple question: for how much longer will this disgrace last? The chief of the Kremlin staff, Sergey Ivanov, controls construction work at Kamchatka’s main airport personally, in the manual mode. I oversee the completion of the hotel construction projects in Vladivostok and have to sort things out how that can be done, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin makes shuttle flights to the spaceport to monitor progress in the construction work. What is it your own people are then for?
You know, for four years I was the Perm Region’s governor. Even in the worst of my nightmares I could imagine a situation in which some senior official would come to Moscow and start settling issues for me. By no means!
- Before you were elected governor, you also were successful in business. Do you agree when the 1990s are called rampant years?
- There were quite a lot bad things then but nevertheless I recollect these times with good emotions. It was interesting to live in that period!
- You started your business with making weight-training machines, didn’t you?
- I earned the first money with my chaps by organizing karate demonstration fights in 1989. We had no start-up capital and someone put forward an idea of holding a couple of sports evenings for spectators. I was a member of the Soviet national team at that time and my friends, my coach Alexander Alymov and I organized a really splendid karate and bodybuilding event. We took two culture centers in Perm on lease and people came to see the event.
We earned crazy money by the standards of that time. With the average wage of 150 rubles at that time, we got 5,000 rubles after the first performance. We collected the entire sum in cash. Just imagine the following: there is a heap of crumpled banknotes on the desk and we’re sitting pensive around it, figuring out which part we can spend on consumer needs and which part we can use to start up business. At this moment, my former subordinate (and I resigned from the post of the deputy head of the regional sports committee) comes into my office without a knock on the door. She sees a heap of money, exclaims, gets pale and starts moving backwards to the door. I don’t know what she thought of us but hardly anything good…
Production of workout machines was the next stage. They look modest by today’s standards but nothing of this kind was available at that time. We found a design institute in Perm, which stood completely idle, after losing orders from the defense industry. With reliance on our sports experience, we explained the task to the institute’s technologists and they designed everything and drew up sketches on paper. We took this documentation and went to a factory, which also stood idle. It is true, though, that the local management was initially reluctant but we paid in cash. This is how our business started. You know, the unreal degree of freedom is my main impression of that period. Before that, I was just a civil servant and worked in the Perm city Komsomol [the youth branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] committee and its regional counterpart. I was just slightly over 20 years old when I assumed the post of the sports committee deputy head and at that time this was considered a brilliant career. But certain discipline existed in the committee, which required attendance in the workplace during specific hours. But when I became the head of a small but my own enterprise, I could decide myself when and what I should do.
- I can imagine. You were the boss!
- And this was without being high-handed. I could call a friend and a partner and tell him: “Well, old chap, don’t wait for me on Friday. I want to leave for three days to go hunting. Please, take care of my business for that time.”
“No problem. Go!” he would reply.
This does not mean that I idled away. When it was necessary, we worked day and night but this possibility to act at your own discretion had a heady effect. The feeling of freedom is perhaps the greatest thing!
This is one side of the coin. But toughness is the reverse side. You can’t do without it in business. Everything is much more specific in the chain of economic actions and the degree of responsibility than in the government sector. Any stumbling threatens with serious problems. For example, a bank fails to transfer money on time (and there were different banks at that time), a truck with a cargo overturns on the road or problems emerge at the customs house. Each disruption in an established chain could paralyze the system. Moreover, there was no such volume of accumulations at that time to easily plug the gap. We had to keep all links of the chain under control to prevent the slightest mistake in contractual relations and the development strategy. Otherwise, everything would have ended quickly and badly. There are no trifles in business. As distinct from my colleagues from among officials who have not covered this difficult course, I understand well how an administrative initiative can instantly turn into a funeral march for many entrepreneurs. So, officials should be more accurate with bold initiatives.
I have gone through different stages. We lived through a very difficult period when banks began to crumble after the Russian government’s default of 1998 and our EKS Group that was engaged in development and other infrastructure projects and owned the retail food chain SemYa had a lot of borrowed capital. The negotiations with banks were difficult and tough. They told us: “The loans must be repaid early, otherwise the bank will collapse.” I answered: “If I give back the money to you, our enterprise will collapse.” And so we looked for and found a compromise. EKS Group continued its operations both at that time and later, when I became the Perm mayor and sold the shares by installments.
The company exists today as well, although under a different name.
- You surely had to deal with criminal situations in the 1990s, hadn’t you?
- Well, there were no situations when bullets were flying near our temples. There were squabbles, sometimes, I don’t conceal. But we were strong guys and we were part of the sports family, which meant a lot at that time. Our organization, the Perm school of Kyokushinkai karate, never took part in any so-called hooligan infighting.
- Why? This was after all a common place when boxers, wrestlers and other strong guys used their force according to its direct designation, outside gyms.
- We didn’t take part in that for one reason – the personal position of the school’s first head, Alexander Alymov. He could expel a member of the country’s national team for a restaurant fight. The guys were expelled with a shout: “Watch Out!” Yes, this was the coach’s character. He would say: “You’re a disgrace to the school. Get out of here!” After that, the issue was closed.
We were respected in Perm. When an enrollment procedure was held for new trainees, boys wishing to be admitted to the sports school once blocked Karl Marx Street because a total of 5,000 persons had come!
- And how did you get into this school?
- I did free-style wrestling and showed fairly good results. Later, when I already worked as a junior researcher at PermNIPIneft research and design oil institute after graduating from the Perm Polytechnic Institute, I saw a notice on enrolment to the karate school. I had previously only read about this martial art because it was banned in the Soviet Union and could entail criminal prosecution. In a word, I decided to go and see what this exotic thing looked like. I went into the wrestling gym and … stayed there for twenty years. By the way, Alexander Alymov continues working in the club as a senior coach. In this sense, nothing has changed in his work. Many fellows followed his example and, honestly speaking, it is still a question of who brings more benefit to the country. The work of a coach upbringing the youth deserves every respect. As for me, I can hardly be good at coaching. With God’s help, I was a fairly good karate fighter but I can’t teach others. This is not my realm. Meanwhile, Volodya Bolotov has his own sports club. Vilory Kornetov once worked as the head of the OBKhSS [the Department for Struggle against Misappropriation of Socialist Property] and now owns an enterprise in Perm. Sergei Minayev is a university lecturer and heads a tourist company. He is a professional traveler. Oleg Zhdanov works in the power engineering industry… These fellows have had different fates but we maintain relations and no one has been lost.
- There is a surprising line in your biography: a part-time staffer of the criminal investigation department. What does this mean?
- I looked for adventures when I was young. I had a romantic spirit and wanted to participate in the struggle for the right cause. This is not the only story of this kind. I was a public wildlife inspector for two or three years, the most successful in the region as I caught more poachers than others. But I want to repent sincerely: my inspection work started after … I was detained by gamekeepers for hunting without authorization. At that time, we lived in a settlement for oil industry workers surrounded by a forest. No one in the settlement usually went to the game hunting inspectorate for permission. Men would take up a rifle and go hunting beyond the nearest outskirts. And so I also went to the forest to hunt for some game for dinner. I was confident that no one would catch me as I could feel people approaching me at a distance of a kilometer. But I ran into true professionals who properly sealed off the area around me. I could not bypass it and so they caught me near a brook. I honestly paid the fine and was about to go home when a senior gamekeeper asked me: “Do you want to work with us, student? We need young and quick fellows like you.” I agreed. At that time, public inspectors were paid half the penalty for each poacher as a bonus. This was a substantial increment to a scholarship! As for criminal investigators, I cooperated with them without any pay but I also took part in detentions. My comrade and my neighbor in the oil workers’ settlement worked as an inspector. We patrolled together the Perm-2 railway station. This was a troubled area full of trouble-makers where there were a lot of convicts who were on the run. So we ‘helped’ these guys return to the places of their imprisonment…
- Did you ever use martial art skills?
- No, I never beat anyone or twisted anyone’s arms. I tried to convince persons by the strength of words.
- Did you face off Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] on a judo mat?
- No, Vladimir Vladimirovich didn’t offer this. Moreover, we specialize in quite different sports…
- You are now co-chairman of the Union of Martial Arts, aren’t you?
- Yes, I am, together with Sergei Kiriyenko [head of Russia’s Rosatom civilian nuclear power corporation].
- It is commonly believed that karate, like other eastern martial arts, is not only a fighting technique but also a philosophy and a world view.
- Yes, this is true. Sport has many designations. Physical development is important but the character is, perhaps, the most important thing. Sport develops the will and instills confidence. You must be able to endure, including pain.
- Have you developed this ability?
- I treat injuries with calm. I can’t say that I sustained a lot of heavy injuries but once I had two of my ribs broken during a bout. My opponent wasn’t even aware of what had happened as I continued the fight to the end. But there was also a risk during the bout that the broken ribs might damage the internal organs, if I sustained a repeat blow. I considered it humiliating to surrender prematurely and so I continued the fight. As a result, I lost the bout by scoring less but I didn’t surrender.
- You said once that you divide people you come across into two categories: friends and foes, ‘white’ and ‘black.’ Which color is present more?
- If we take the teachings of Confucius as the basis, Yin and Yang are present in equal proportions. As it is accepted, the unity and struggle of opposites creates the world’s harmony. But this is rather a joke.
- And what if we speak seriously?
- There are a lot of talented and professional people working around me. But there is another thing that matters. In principle, there should be no indifferent and incompetent people in the Russian government.
- But there are probably such people. And what follows? This is not a wrestling mat after all and you can’t challenge your rival in a bout or use fighting techniques against him.
- If you had the desire, you would be able to resolve the problem. It is not at all necessary to throw your opponent over the hip or use a submission hold. If this is within my competence, I’ll find a method that will help remove an unscrupulous employee from his post. I want to repeat again without any fear of looking immodest: I never retreat from the goal that has been set. If something is done wrongly in my view, I’ll use all the strength I have to change the situation. I won't stop until I achieve my goal. There is one common thing familiar to all who have held senior posts. When a person assumes his duties in a new organization, the level of his competence is usually low as he does not yet know much for objective reasons but the degree of his confidence that he can solve any tasks is, on the contrary, quite high. Gradually, a person comes to understand why he won’t be able to implement what he has planned. His experience grows while his confidence abates. These two factors come to overlap somehow and at this moment it is necessary to urgently move this person to some other position and find a new place of work for him.
- And what stage are you at now?
- I’m at a good stage. I have already gained knowledge and I haven’t been disillusioned yet. Besides, I haven’t grown accustomed in my entire life to getting reconciled with failures and, therefore, I’ll fight to the victorious end in any case. The word “impossible” doesn’t exist for me. When I hear it, I begin to feel very tense.
Let me tell you an old story. When I was a tenth-form pupil, my maths teacher gave me a ‘satisfactory’ mark [mark 3 under the five-point grading scale] for an academic quarter of instruction, which was an extraordinary event. I always received good marks, although I didn’t show great zeal in my studies. She not only gave me this mark but also announced to the whole class that this was the true level of Trutnev’s abilities. One could hardly invent any worse irritant for me: why does someone start assessing my potential, if I don’t know it myself yet?! Naturally, this made me indignant and probably for the first time in my life I started to study the textbooks zealously. As a result, I passed my oral and written physics and maths entry exams at the Polytechnic University excellently. Even members of the university admission commission were surprised: “look, he is from a village school but has such a level of training!”
So, the word “impossible” is a splendid method of motivation for me.
- Do you consider yourself to be a team player? The principle of “one for all and all for one” does not work in martial arts.
- I have the ability to hear others and work in a group. Otherwise, I would have been unable to work as the head of an organization. As for sports, I didn’t practise only karate. I qualified for the degree of the candidate master of sports in water tourism and passed three most difficult categories of fitness tests. This is team play.
As for the work in the government and the presidential administration, it is important to follow some common principles and not to breach them. As for me, I never lie. There are no situations when I first say one thing and then do another thing. I don’t understand those who mimic under the impact of circumstances, sway to and fro and fuss about. In decision-making, every person has the right to openly formulate his position and it should not necessarily coincide with the leadership’s position. But democracy ends at the point of making a decision. After that, everyone has to move in the same direction.
All the rest refers to common human values: don’t let people down, don’t betray… In this sense, an official doesn’t differ from other citizens. Work for the benefit of the country should remain his main motivation. It is good if it is so, although we know that it can be different. It is more important for someone not to cause his boss’s anger, to keep his head down, not to quarrel with business and so on. But we are not talking about this category of people, are we?
- Do you think you’re a good judge of characters?
- This is a serious problem. Time is needed as I can’t determine a person’s character at first glance. I may be mistaken. The eastern principle of full trust before the first deceit frequently let me down. And I change my attitude to a person from plus to minus with difficulty. This always involves an internal breakdown and a violent effort.
- Were you often confronted with betrayal?
- I’ll answer shortly: there were such cases. It is easier to deal with an opponent holding a different position. It is much worse when an individual is interested in nothing else but his personal benefits. He seems to do something but he gradually starts turning sideways and engaging in something else instead of the main cause.
- You were friends with Oleg Chirkunov, who was your partner and deputy in EKS Group and then became the governor of the Perm Region, when you left the post, weren’t you?
- Yes, this is exactly the story which I recollected when you asked about losses that had occurred in my life. I won’t conceal: this theme is difficult for me. Oleg and I maintained close friendly relations for a long time. We got acquainted long ago during our Komsomol work. We also founded EKS Group together. In 1996, I became the Perm mayor while Chirkunov assumed the duties of the company director. He remained in the company even after I was elected the regional governor in 2000.
- When did discord start between you?
- It started in the mid-2000s. I went to Moscow where I headed the Natural Resources Ministry while Oleg became the head of the Perm Region. You know, I don’t want to go further into this story and I would prefer not to talk about it at all and not to rake up the past. I can only say that today my contacts with Chirkunov have been actually terminated.
- You have been acquainted with Dmitry Rybolovlev for quite a long time as well, haven’t you?
- I have been acquainted for a slightly shorter period both with him and Andrei Kuzyayev, if you’re talking about people from the Forbes list. We started business at about the same time and achieved success in the areas, in which we were engaged. We never had common business interests but all the same we kept each other in sight. This could not be called competition. This was rather sporting ardor. You know, this was a sort of distant competition. Dmitry participated in the privatization of Uralkali [mineral fertilizer producer] and then actually became its owner. Andrei did the same with Permneft [oil company]. It is understandable that we could not compete with them by the level of company capitalization or the level of personal wealth. Nevertheless, all of us had business in the same place: Perm is not a large city. In 2000, the governor’s elections were held in the region. This was not an easy story. It so happened that I had to be an opponent to the region’s incumbent governor Igumnov with all ensuing consequences. The pressure was strong but I went all the way while Rybolovlev and Kuzyayev acted on my side at that time. This predetermined our further relations. I never forget acts like this.
Then there was further evolution in our relations. When a coalmine in Berezniki was flooded and someone decided to put all the blame on Rybolovlev I insisted on an unbiased probe and did this quite firmly. This is actually all. I can’t say that I met with Dmitry and Andrei every week. This was not the case then and this is not the case now.
- I’m talking about a different thing. You have achieved success in business, like Rybolovlev and Kuzyayev, and you have earned quite large amounts. However, as distinct from them, you joined civil service and became a leader among government officials by the level of incomes. In 2004, when you became a minister, you declared an income of over $4 million, shaking the imagination of many people.
- Fortunately, I then ceded this lead to my colleagues who had also had time to do business before joining the government. People appeared in the government who overshadowed me and I’m very much grateful to them for that.
- Are you talking about [Mikhail] Abyzov and [Alexander] Khloponin?
- There are also Igor Shuvalov and Denis Manturov. This is a quintet that has gained the lead. We talk ironically about each other but understand that a lead by incomes is not the best story in Russia.
- Even in 2014, you declared almost 180 million rubles. You have the time to earn money. Do you also have the time to spend it?
- First of all, a considerable part of this amount involves incomes from what I earned earlier. But even this is not the main thing. I want to say a simple thing and you should try to understand it. If we speak about business people’s attitude to money, its accumulation can be a goal only to a certain level, after which the earned capital becomes an instrument, a tool for development and growth. You don’t need much to realize even the most fanciful wishes. Take my word for it.
It is even easier for me as I have never had any absurd ideas, have never been engrossed in this and have never participated in a parade of vanity and have not measured anyone to see if he has a more luxurious car, a more expensive watch or a longer yacht. Consumer rivalry is surely not for me.
It is not accepted in my family to boast prosperity. Even at the start-up stage, the first large amounts of money I earned didn’t make me dizzy. The euphoria passed away after I bought a two-chamber refrigerator, which looked like an exotic thing in Perm at that time, and purchased a new apartment for my mother. My father had unfortunately died by that time. Separate living accommodation for my close relative was, indeed, an extremely important goal for me. And that was all. There was no longer thirst for capital accumulation.
- Nevertheless, you personal auto pool includes such cars as Porsche, Cayenne Turbo and Maserati GranTurismo.
- Listen, I no longer have a Maserati. I have sold it just because your colleagues reminded me about this car at every opportunity. I got tired of explaining that I left the gates to drive in this car twice a year but the press I read said that I did this more frequently. And do you know for how many years I have used the Porsche that had been discussed in the press? For eleven years! Decent people do not even take a seat in such cars. Quick cars for me are not a tribute to fashion but are my love for speed and auto sport. I was once seriously practising racing and was a champion of Russia in rally cross. But I have not been racing for quite a long time now. Somehow, I have no time for that. As for how to use the money, I have long made myself and my family to be well-off, and you’re right about that. Now I try to help others as much as I can.
- Are you talking about charity?
- Yes, I’m talking about it. But I surely don’t talk publicly on this theme. I perceive all that happened to me in the past as independent lives. Karate is one life, auto races - another, business a third and civil service a fourth life. It is interesting when you can live several lives and try to achieve success in each of them. I received a black belt and the karate fifth dan. I became a master of auto sports while a private company established with my participation proved its worth and I don’t seem to get lost among government officials. You should understand that it is important for me to see what you have been able to realize in various spheres rather than how much you have earned.
Today it is interesting for me to deal with the [Russian] Far East and I have not lost this drive. Much can be done still but there is a long road from ideas to implementation. This means you need to carry on. I’m convinced that we’ll be able to cope with the task. This is because we don’t do anything within routine bureaucratic procedures. Previously, a person would come to me and complain that he could not solve a problem. I would ask then: “And what have you done?” He would answer: “I have sent a letter to the ministry.” But you don’t work as a postman! The ministry you have sent a letter doesn’t make any difference. If necessary, you can stay in my office at night but you must see to it that your issue must be examined! I always attend tenders for selecting projects of advanced development territories because it never so happens that you look at papers and then everything starts working. You must necessarily participate in the process and control it. Otherwise, I won’t be able to be responsible for the area I have been entrusted.
- And the last question: What is this sword that decorates your office?
Born November 8, 1959 in Luhansk, Ukraine. In 1982, Andrei Vandenko graduated from the Kiev National University of Taras Shevchenko specializing in journalism. Since 1989, he lives and works in Moscow. Vandenko has more than 20 years of experience in the interview genre. He was published in the major part of top Russian media outlets and is a winner of professional awards.