Media access to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is pretty strictly controlled. But Georgia’s Rustavi-2 television channel this week hit the jackpot when one of its reporters was able to put a few questions to the man who many believe was the leading force behind Russia’s August 2008 military intervention in the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Rustavi-2 journalist Natia Bandzeladze ran across Putin during commemorations in Poland to mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Andrei Shary spoke to Bandzeladze about her encounter with Russia’s strongman.RFE/RL: How did you end up near the Russian prime minister?
Initially we were supposed to meet with [Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia] Tymoshenko. But when I arrived in Poland it turned out that the only accreditation available was for a joint press conference of [Polish Prime Minister Donald] Tusk and Putin. So I went. They informed us that the questions from the Polish and Russian sides had been determined in advance. And when everything was over and they were packing up the microphones, the Russian side noticed that I wanted to ask a question. When Mr. Putin left the podium, I shouted: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, would you answer a question from Georgian television?” And he immediately noticed me and came over. Of course, there was a lot of confusion. My cameraman was pushed aside and they wouldn’t give me a microphone so I could begin recording. It turned out that the prime minister waited seven or eight minutes before they let us begin.RFE/RL: What kind of impression did Putin make?
I don’t think the question is correct. You know that we have hard feelings toward Putin. Even more plainly -- he started the war. In his answers to our questions, he indirectly confirmed that Putin started the war, that Russia started the war. I said to him that the occupation is the most painful thing for Georgia -- the fact that Russian troops are still on Georgian territory. And I asked if there will be a reconsideration of relations between Russia and Georgia following the occupation, following the recognition of Ossetia and Abkhazia, in particular since European leaders did not support Putin and the Russian policy.
He immediately began saying that what I call “occupation” is called “liberation” in Ossetia and Abkhazia. He also said that he had no other choice but than to begin the war. I remarked that this wasn’t right because we love Russians and there is no ethnic enmity in Georgia.RFE/RL: Russian propaganda says basically the same thing -- that the war was not against the Georgian people, which Russia and the Kremlin dearly love, but against the Saakashvili regime, which, according to the official Kremlin version, began the war. Did you speak to Putin about this?
Yes. He mentioned the Saakashvili “regime.” We are journalists and we don’t take sides. But we can analyze situations. If you say that the war began because of Saakashvili, then why did the entire world back the Saakashvili “regime” and call Russia, Putin, and [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev to fulfill their declarations? The Russian side will never meet its obligations.
-- Robert Coalson