Valdai Club 2013 – The Big Theatre of One Actor

Valdai Club this year was indeed a big political event, dominated by the Russian President who is and will be the dominant political force for the years to come. And the significance of 2013 Valdai cannot be underestimated as its main messages will stay with Russia and the world for a long time.

The 10th anniversary meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club is over, but reflections about it will be discussed for a long time. That is neither because the small group of experts and journalists that started to meet ten years ago invited by RIA Novosti and Sergey Karaganov (founder of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy) has grown into a gathering of the 200 foremost Russia experts from around the globe. Not even the extensive presence of the Russian opposition was the main reason why this years’ Valdai will be long remembered.

As I see it, there are three fundamental reasons why this event was quite unique. The first was the choice of the main topic, “Russian Identity,” a radical departure in scope and depth from the more narrowly defined previous “Valdai topics of the year” that included, for instance, the state of the Russian economy, the development of Siberia, or the presidential elections. The point was that if Russia is to play the role that she deserves in the region and in the world she cannot do it without addressing the question of dominant values that can frame the vectors of its development. In other words, there can be no mobilization of the society without basic value consensus that can hold the society together in good and bad times and serve as a guide for individuals, communities and the state in time of the strategic unpredictability of the world affairs. President Putin has offered his own version of such consensus based on traditional values rooted in Russian history and the Orthodox Church, but with a significant departure from the “community” to an individual-based value system. I would say that this is nothing short of a new version of the Russian post-conservatism in which “communal goals” can be successfully achieved focusing more on the spirit and wealth of the individual – or , using the words of V.V. Putin – only via the “quality of citizens, the quality of society: their intellectual, spiritual and moral strength. After all, in the end economic growth […] depends on whether the citizens of a given country consider themselves a nation, to what extent they identify with their own history, values and traditions, and whether they are united by common goals and responsibilities. ” Unfortunately Russian officials glossed over such issues as corruption, low efficiency of the governance, growing intolerance to migrants.

The second noteworthy aspect of this year’s meeting was the unprecedented openness of the debates and meetings. We met high-level officials but also a very representative group of the Russian opposition (that included newly elected Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeny Roizman as well as Ilya Ponomariov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and television host/activist Kseniya Sobchak among others). Moreover, even as officials were back to their duties soon after their presentations, members of the oppositions were available during the whole four days of Valdai’s seminars and presentations. The meeting with V. V. Putin, in which he faced his (sometimes fierce) critics, both domestic and foreign, was broadcast live on Russian television. Here the main messages as I saw them were that Russia’s political system is becoming (by Mr. Putin’s choice) more open and less vulnerable to her critics opposing the “high power.” She sees this now as a “normal” and legitimate part of the system (under certain conditions) with, for instance, the upcoming mayoral elections are more open to the opposition. Our meetings and discussion with the President signaled clearly that something new is coming, a sort of new wave of internal, political liberalization. Liberalization, that is going to embrace fully competitive elections, particularly at the local and city level, and a zero tolerance for the unsanctioned opposition led street action.

The third reason that the 2013 Valdai meeting was truly unique was the meeting with the Russian President, V.V. Putin and his main messages, which he discussed with such an impressive performance that even his opponents were left almost speechless. This year Valdai Club guests faced a “renewed Putin” - self-assured, witty, natural, well-prepared and confident to win the audience, no matter how critical it might be. But the significance of meeting the President was not in his effectiveness as public speaker but in his messages. I found three of them especially significant as they shape the contours of Russia’s future. The first was that the world is “not complete without Russia” and despite real and perceived Russian weakness, this country is not only capable but destined to be a stabilizer, mediator and initiator of world events. That message passed to us a few days after his op-ed in the New York Times that gave President Obama a safe passage out of war and I was left with a sense that Vladimir Vladimirovitch’s conversation with the US President on Syria was the beginning of a new round of serious Russian international diplomacy. The second key message was that a broader access to the opposition as political competitors is and will remain the political course of the future. It is a departure from the myth of being a President of all to the political reality of being a President of the majority, which will make Russian politics more pluralistic and – hopefully – more democratic and stable. Third was the idea that European (and in general Western) values might not be a model for Russia. In other words Russia has to be taken “as is” not “as it should be” as a partner by European Union, the West and the East.

This article was originally published in Известия newspaper

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.