Russian President Putin's comments in annual phone-in

(Reuters) – The following are highlights from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual phone-in on Thursday.

ON SYRIA

“The point is not that we left and dropped everything… we withdrew a significant part or our contingent, but after the withdrawal we left the Syrian army in a position where, with the support of the part of the contingent that was left there, it can carry out serious offensive operations. Already after our withdrawal it has taken some important targets.”

“It is necessary to accept – for all to agree and sit down at the negotiating table – to accept the constitution and on the basis of the constitution to hold elections. That is the way to get out of the crisis.”

“The opposition (in Syria) is trying to recover what they lost. Actually, it should be said that really it is not the Syrian army that is fighting there, but some Kurdish formations and some other armed groups fighting among themselves and against the Kurds. We are monitoring closely and will do everything to ensure the situation does not worsen.”

ON WHOM TO SAVE FROM DROWNING: TURKISH PRESIDENT TAYYIP ERDOGAN OR UKRAINE PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO

“If someone has decided to drown, it is no longer possible to save them. But, of course, we are ready to lend a helping hand and a hand of friendship to any of our partners if they want that themselves.”

ON ECONOMY

“We should not be printing money, we should be changing the structure of the economy.”

ON SOVEREIGN WEALTH FUNDS

“If they are spent at pace in which they were spent last year, if they are not replenished and nothing is done, then they will last for at least four years. But we are planning that the economy will grow next year and therefore there will be no need to spend as much of the reserves as we have been spending. So there should be no fear.”

ON GDP

“(Last year) gross domestic product declined 3.7 percent. This year the government expects the economy to continue ti decline slightly. But only about 0.3 percent. Next year we expect a 1.4 percent growth. For sure, it is difficult to feel the bottom.”

ON KUDRIN

“We have agreed that he would work more actively in the Presidential Economic Council, perhaps he will become one of the deputies of the council.”

ON INFRASTRUCTURE

“A lot of resources are being spent inappropriately. This should be changed.”

ON INFLATION

“The rise in food is substantial. To a certain extent the rise in food prices is a man-made result of measures taken to develop the agricultural sector in condition of Western sanctions.”

“The rise in food prices is a temporary phenomenon. Prices will stabilize.”

ON TURKEY

“We do not find ourselves, and we will not find ourselves, in a ring of hostility. This can be absolutely ruled out. We have very good relations with most of the countries in the world.”

“We have also, on the whole, good relations with our neighbors. And here we consider Turkey to be our friend and the Turkish people – a friendly nation, with whom we are definitely going to be building the best possible friendly relations.”

“We have problems with some political leaders whose behavior, actions we consider inappropriate. But we are working on this, as you see quite calmly, without any hitches… and this is the line of our reaction to unfriendly actions towards Russia.”

“A reaction is absolutely necessary, otherwise they will be at your neck and will be chasing you away. Such cases have already happened in our history, a long time ago. We should not allow a return to that – and we will not allow that.”

ON RUSSIA’S DOPING SCANDAL

“I do not think that the decision (to ban meldonium use by sports people) has any political sub text, although meldonium has been used exclusively by sports people in Eastern Europe, former Soviet Union countries … and had never been considered as doping. But again, I do not think there is some political sub text to that.”

“We need to improve our work with international organizations, to react in a timely way to their demands. And of course, it is necessary to ensure the health of our sports people so that sporting competition is fair, so fans feel enjoyment from a fair and honest competition.”

“In any case, such (honest) sports people should not suffer. And in our case it is the majority of them, who have no relation to the doping scandal.”

ON HIS PERSONAL LIFE

“You know, we (Putin and his ex-wife, Lyudmila) sometimes meet. Not often, but from time to time. We have good relations. They may actually be better than they had been before. I know that all is well with her. … And I am also doing well.”

ON PANAMA PAPERS

“Firstly, as strange as it may seem, they are not publishing misleading information about offshore accounts. The information is reliable. It appears not to have been prepared by journalists but, most likely, by lawyers.”

“They do not accuse anyone specifically. They are simply trying to muddy the waters. Someone out there from among my friends is engaged in some business. The question is – does this money from these offshore accounts reach officials, including the president? And it is unfathomable that Sergei Pavlovich Roldugin, who is in question here, could think about spending all his money on the purchase of a musical instrument.”

“Here in Russia we can still imagine a bribe in the form of greyhound puppies, but the violin and the cello? I have not heard of that.”

“Who does it, these provocations? We know that there are some staff from official American institutions.”

“Süddeutsche Zeitung is a media holding company owned by the American financial corporation Goldman Sachs. The instigators’ ears are sticking out everywhere but they do not even redden. We should not expect them to show any kind of remorse, they will keep on doing it and there will be more of this stuff closer to the (parliamentary) elections.”

“But they must understand that the issue is not about specific people, individuals, no matter what position they hold in Russia. The issue is about the country, which cannot be manipulated, which cannot be forced to act as someone wants and dance to their tune.”

“If they talk to us with respect, if they look for a compromise – as we do – then we will always find a solution that will satisfy everyone, both ourselves and our partners. It is necessary to work with Russia as an equal partner.”

ON WHICH U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE IS BETTER: DONALD TRUMP OR HILLARY CLINTON?

“We need to look for who is better … In our history of bilateral relations, there were moments when we interacted very honestly, achieved very good results at national and international levels. Today, there are also examples of such cooperation.”

“You need to look at the root of the problem and act not from a position of strength and dictatorship, not from a position of imperial ambition, but act respectfully with all partners, and of course with Russia. Without that it is impossible to form a modern democratic relationship.”

ON SANCTIONS:

“I do not think our partners will move towards lifting the restrictions on our country in the near future.”

“If they (the West) come to the conclusion that it is in their own interests to take steps to repeal those restrictions, then this will put us in a difficult situation, because in accordance with World Trade Organisation rules we will be left unprotected if we keep our counter sanctions in place. We will closely follow this process.”

ON DEFENSE SPENDING

“The first I want to tell you: government defense orders are not being reduced, we are cutting the budgeting of the defense ministry and nearly all enforcement agencies. We are doing this because of the known budgetary constrains and that is an absolutely natural thing in current conditions.”

“We should curb the appetites of defense and law enforcement agencies the same way we are curbing the appetites of civilian agencies.”

“It is necessary to improve the efficiency of budget resources. But these restrictions relate to current activities, I want to emphasize that again – not to state defense procurement. Government defense orders should be and will be executed in full.”

ON WHETHER HE WILL SEEK RE-ELECTION IN 2018

“I think it’s too early to speak about it.”

“We should think now not about where and how we will work in the future. We should think about how to justify people’s trust today, how to achieve the goals we set for ourselves, the promises we made.”

“We will take the relevant decisions depending on how the situation develops and on how the work proceeds.”

ON GOVERNMENT

“I do not think our government is weak. There are many challenges but the government and the central bank are working professionally.”

(Reporting by Moscow Newsroom)

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