The Tenth Anniversary Conference of the “Valdai Club” was held in a resort in the countryside halfway between Moscow and St Petersburg. We were taken there by special train from Moscow to a tiny station apparently built for the occasion, and then deep into the forest by bus along newly asphalted roads to a comparatively restrained post-Soviet complex by a lake, which managed to retain the feeling of an old-fashioned Party sanatorium despite the modern plumbing and the reasonable food. There was a definite whiff of Potemkin in the air.
The theme of the conference was “Russia’s Diversity for the Modern World,” and there was a fair amount of waffle on the hoary old subjects of Russian identity and Russian exceptionalism, some of it interesting. But the main subjects of debate were Syria; the significance or otherwise of the recent municipal elections; and the determination to stick to the “Russian way,” and take no lessons from others on human rights or anything else.
Among the two hundred participants were Russia-watchers, journalists, and academics from Europe, America, and Asia, and some senior West European political figures: Volcker Ruhe, Francois Fillon, and Romano Prodi.
Navalny was not there; a rumour that he had been invited was denied by Putin’s press spokesman.
Interestingly, the Russian contingent included several members of the current opposition: Vladimir Ryzhkov, whose parliamentary career was destroyed by Putin; Gennady Gudkov, like Putin, a former KGB officer; Ilya Ponomarev, a young Duma deputy from Just Russia; and Ksenia Sobchak, Sobchak’s daughter, who seems to have transformed herself effectively from mini-skirted TV celebrity into a serious and rather effective politician. Irina Khakamada was also there, but made little contribution. Navalny was not there; a rumour that he had been invited was denied by Putin’s press spokesman.
The team who were brought in to talk to us included two victors in the recent municipal elections, Sobyanin (Moscow) and Roizman (Yekaterinburg). Also present were Sergei Ivanov and Vyacheslav Volodin from the Presidential Administration, Sergei Lavrov the Foreign Minister, Sergei Shoigu the Defence Minister, Metropolitan Illarion, responsible in the Patriarchate for the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations, and, of course, Putin himself.
Putin answered questions for nearly four hours. He was grumpy and bored to start with, but grew more lively and relaxed as the session moved on. He was good tempered even with the critical questions, and skilful in avoiding the ones he didn’t want to answer. His exchange with Ryzhkov was almost jolly. He teased the foreign potentates: when Ruhe said Merkel would probably be elected on Sunday he said wryly: “You mean she’ll be elected for a third term?” He asked Fillon if he was going to run for president; such witticisms were greeted with sycophantic laughter.
Overall it was an impressive performance: the best, said those who had been there before, that he had put up on these Valdai occasions. Perhaps not so surprising: he was still enjoying the afterglow of his diplomatic triumph over Syria.
Putin rejected suggestions from the floor that the Russians too had a responsibility to protect innocent civilians. The Russians, he said, had been vilified for opposing intervention in Iraq, and subsequent events had proved them right.
There were no particular surprises, here, for most of the points made at the conference had been made elsewhere, and relevant parts of Putin’s own remarks were televised. Putin’s line echoed by his underlings: the missiles used to deliver the chemical weapons in Damascus on 21 August were very old Soviet models which could have been delivered many years ago to a large number of countries, or even manufactured under licence in places like Bulgaria; and there was no evidence that securely linked them to the regime. The opposition was hopelessly fractured; the role of extremists was growing, and there was no one who could sensibly be supported from outside. None of the suggestions for forceful intervention made sense. Russia had in any case been consistently opposed to interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Putin rejected suggestions from the floor that the Russians too had a responsibility to protect innocent civilians. No, intervention could only be sanctioned by the UN Security Council, whose procedures the West had regularly abused for its own purposes. The Russians, he said, had been vilified for opposing intervention in Iraq, and subsequent events had proved them right. They had supported a resolution to defend civilians at risk in Benghazi: the West had then used it to justify regime change in Libya. The Russians were not going to be caught again.
The September elections
The significance of the recent municipal elections was a major theme in and out of the formal meetings. Were the elections in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Yaroslavl, and Petrozavodsk, where representatives of the “opposition” did surprisingly well, fairly conducted? Were the elections in many other parts of the country as heavily falsified as representatives of the opposition claimed with much vehemence? Was it all part of a Kremlin plan?
The Kremlin representatives said that they wanted elections in Russia to be open and properly conducted. The President was carrying out his electoral promises, and the opening up of competition in the municipal elections was his initiative. The trend had been set, and it would continue. There should be room for alternative points of view. But violent opposition on the streets would continue to be suppressed, though Putin said that he might consider an amnesty for some of those jailed after the demonstrations in Moscow. He pointed out that it was he who had reintroduced the election of governors, a practice that did not exist in many Western countries. He approved of Ilya Ponomarev’s plan to run for mayor of Novosibirsk: serious politicians should experience regional politics before they moved to Moscow.
There were spirited exchanges between the Putin team and the representatives of the opposition, who insisted that though the elections in Moscow, Yekaterinburg and one or two other places had been reasonably well conducted, elsewhere the falsification had been on the old heroic scale. They argued that the ability to change a government peacefully was the main guarantee of political stability; thus, the Kremlin’s claim that it wanted dialogue was not sincere while repression continued. One opposition voice claimed that the Kremlin was making a serious mistake by ignoring the rising generation of thirty-year-olds, the people who had grown up after the Soviet collapse, who were well educated, independent minded, and possessed both the ambition and the skills to live in the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by their Western neighbours, in other post-Communist countries; such people did not buy into the outdated and conservative vision of Russia promoted by the Kremlin. Even some of the opposition people were sceptical that such young people were sufficiently numerous and like-minded to form a real factor in politics.
The Russian way of life
Putin and his courtiers criticised Western concepts of “human rights” which included the open toleration of homosexuality, gay marriage, and other ideas, which undermined Christian views on morality and the family. The use of the media to propagate such ideas was unacceptable. One speaker remarked that it was ironic that in the Soviet period Europe had defended religion against the atheist policy of the Soviet government, whereas now it seemed to be the other way round. All of them claimed to favour Russia as a multinational society. Another said very firmly that history could not be ignored, crimes should not be covered up, and the leaders responsible for them should be named (though he himself avoided naming Stalin). Millions had been sacrificed to the ideas of Communism. Reconciliation should come about not through silence, nor through attempts to justify past crimes, but through Christian toleration.
I was struck by the political skill that Putin continues to demonstrate. Two years ago I thought that he had reached the peak of his political career, which would now fall into the slow decline with which political careers usually end. Then came the major misjudgement of the “rokirovka,” the in-your-face exchange of jobs between him and Medvedev in September 2011, and the anti-government demonstrations that followed in the winter of 2011-2. For a couple of months thereafter, Putin seemed at a loss. Then he embarked first on an effective campaign of tough repression to cut the opposition down to size, followed by what looks like a deliberate programme to open up the political system in a tightly controlled fashion. If it is decline (as I still suspect), he is managing it well.
I was struck by the political skill that Putin continues to demonstrate. Two years ago I thought that he had reached the peak of his political career... If it is decline (as I still suspect), he is managing it well.
He evaded questions about his political legacy and about whether or not he would run yet again for president. But after thirteen years in power it would not be strange if he were thinking about his eventual place in history as the man who stabilised Russia with a firm hand, gave it prosperity, restored its independent place in world affairs, and installed a political system which has some of the elements of democracy, and a functioning market economy, yet without owing anything much to Western ideas.
Representatives of the opposition commented to me that there had indeed been some progress over elections, and the political system in general. But it was very small, tactics rather than strategy. The opposition would have to keep up the pressure if it was not to slide back.
Maybe all Putin’s talk was no more than the construction of yet another Potemkin village. Lilia Shevtsova calls these Valdai Conferences, “Kremlin kowtow,” occasions when “useful idiots” can suck up to Putin and bolster his non-existent democratic credentials. The conferences are of course a stunt designed to improve Russia’s image abroad, more intelligent and effective than most of the Kremlin’s other PR campaigns over the years. On this occasion there was indeed some greasy sycophancy, but there was also some harsh questioning and some enlightening discussion. Whether the “useful idiots” are taken in is a matter for each of them individually.
Thumbnail photo: kremlin.ru