- The Guardian, Wednesday 30 April 2014 18.41 BST
At the launch of Scottish National party’s European election campaign, Scotland‘s first minister said his remarks had been misunderstood and he would not be retracting them. He said: “When people see the comments I made, they will see that they’re perfectly reasonable. I said I deprecated Russian actions in Ukraine and also its human rights record. I pointed out that the western press underestimated Putin and that’s obviously true.”
Salmond encountered a storm of protest after stating he admired “certain aspects” of Putin’s politics and his restoration “of a substantial part of Russian pride” in an interview conducted on 14 March for the May edition of the men’s magazine GQ with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor.
Michael Ostapko, the Scottish chairman of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, said Ukrainians had made “overwhelming comments [of] hurt, disgust, betrayal and astonishment” and called for Salmond to retract his comments. In the Commons, his remarks were described as a “gross error of judgment” by William Hague, the foreign secretary, and as a “dreadful blunder” by Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary.
The Mail Online website quoted Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, saying he “agrees with the viewpoint of the Scottish first minister”.
Salmond said: “When I was talking about the pride issue, it was in the aftermath of the Sochi [winter] Olympics, which was obviously a restoration of Russian pride. Those are reasonably balanced remarks.”
He would reply to Ostapko in detail, he said, “showing the comments were made specifically on Russia and Ukraine, which were comprehensive and unambiguous”.
The transcript of the Campbell-Salmond interview released in advance by GQ’s publisher Conde Nast shows no mention of Ukraine or the Sochi Olympics, nor does the full text of the interview being published on Thursday.
In the days before the interview, pro-Russian paramilitaries seized key Ukrainian buildings in Crimea and work on the Crimean referendum had started. Nato had warned about a serious threat to European stability from Russia’s actions.
In his GQ interview, Campbell sought to establish Salmond’s view of the Russian president by asking: “Putin?.” Salmond replied: “Well, I don’t approve of a range of Russian actions, but he is more effective than the press he gets and you can see why he carries support in Russia.”
“Admire him?‚” asked Campbell. Salmond replied: “Certain aspects. There are aspects of Russian constitutionality and the intermesh with business and politics that are obviously difficult to admire. He’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing. Russians are fantastic people, incidentally; they are lovely people.”
Asked on Wednesday whether he would give a different answer now, Salmond replied: “If I was asked the same question today, I would go into detail on the annexation of Crimea, but that wasn’t possible and indeed, of course, I have done that subsequent to it; it wasn’t possible before it happened. My view is that the interview was perfectly balanced and people, when they see it in context, would think that as well.”
The SNP are leading the European election polls in Scotland with a series of recent surveys suggesting the party could hit their target of matching or beating their highest European election result of 34% in 1989.
It remains unclear whether the long-running Scottish independence referendum campaign could improve or dilute the low turnout in previous European elections, which stood at 28.5% in 2009.
While some polls suggest the SNP could get closer to 40% on 22 May, SNP strategists are uncertain whether that will translate into the party winning three out of Scotland’s six European parliament seats. The SNP holds two seats but could win an extra seat under the complex proportional voting system used for European parliament votes, if the Eurosceptic Ukip vote increases and the Lib Dem vote collapses.