Added to the uniqueness of the Valdai Club is its utter rarity — there isn’t a single political leader in the Western world that would endeavor to absorb the viewpoints of all sorts of foreign and domestic critics of all colors, including highly marginal groups.
As a participant of this year’s meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Valdai Club, it is very interesting to read the reactions of foreign attendants about the event and the meeting with Putin himself. It’s as if the participants each held their own mirror to Putin, and while the same Putin was reflected in all of them, the different mirrors offered differently skewed views. The article by Serge Schmemann in the New York Times made an impression as an example of well-written criticism that offered a view starkly different from mine and inspired me to offer my own perspective on the Valdai Club, as both a Russian and a Western political insider.
Added to the uniqueness of the Valdai Club is its utter rarity — there isn’t a single political leader in the Western world that would endeavor to absorb the viewpoints of all sorts of foreign and domestic critics of all colors, including highly marginal groups. For over three hours, that is. It is unlikely that President Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, or David Cameron would pioneer such an event in their respective countries and answer questions on the dysfunction of their government, failed multiculturalism and the lack of integration of people from different ethnicity or confession, or the loss of national identity respectively. The Valdai Club shows openness to criticism on Putin’s part that belies the claims of authoritarianism so frequently thrown at him. Nemtsov, Inozemtsev and Ryzhkov were all there in Kaluga, articulating their opposition despite rejecting the legitimacy of the Putin regime, which made for a completely original framework of the meeting, unheard of and implausible in the Western world.
What the participants saw in the discourse with Putin was colored by their political position and their background: whether they stood right or left of center, whether they approved or abhorred the Russian political system, and whether they saw Putin’s approach as that of the leader open to criticism by radical communists and die-hard nationalists alike, or as that of the all-powerful man who could afford to hear dissent and ignore it. A case in point is Schmemann’s claim that the decision taken privately between Putin and Medvedev to swap places as the next election frontrunners points to their disdain for public opinion. Why does Schmemann see it as such? For three years, Putin and Medvedev gave the same answer to anyone who asked: they’d decide on who runs for President among themselves, having at their disposal the majority party in Parliament. United Russia is a Gaullist-type party in backing a charismatic leader like Putin, and he has the advantage of deciding whether to run with the confidence that the party would fall in line unanimously. It would be a disdain for public opinion were Putin to declare himself President without elections, or run against the wishes of the party or his electorate. My political mirror saw the decision within the larger picture of a loyal party and a Russian electorate, 60 per cent of which declares its support for Putin.
Another illustration of different perception is Schmemann’s point about Berlusconi as “one of the last Mohicans” in Europe, having brought his country “to the brink of disaster.” He interpreted Putin’s approval of Berlusconi as an all-out support by one charismatic leader cherishing stability of another. But this is not what I heard: Putin was making a point that Berlusconi was to be credited with having brought stability to Italy for the first time since World War II. Before him, each successive Italian government was in crisis ending in resignation once or even twice a year. Different contexts thus colored the discourse, and it is the iconoclastic nature of the Valdai Club that brought them all to the surface. The underlying implication of the duration of the Club for eight years is that Vladimir Putin enjoys interacting with the greatest variety of political actors, acknowledging their viewpoints, and engaging in the challenging political discussions that ensue.