Director of Rethinking Russia International Analytical Center
The 13th Valdai Discussion Club session was held in Sochi October 24-27. Ever since its establishment in 2004, the Club has gained the reputation, first of all, as a forum for Russian and foreign experts to compare notes on a wide range of international issues. Secondly, the President of Russia drops into the exclusive club on quite a regular basis.
The year of 2016 was no exception to the rule. The Valdai Plenary Session included the President’s speech and the question time, when the club members were able to ask questions of the head of the state, as well as other distinguished guests, including Tarja Halonen, former Finnish President, Thabo Mbeki, former South African President, and Heinz Fischer, former Austrian President.
Each discussion was characterized by a versatility and multiplicity of opinions and judgments aired, which is no wonder given that the varying backgrounds, different preferred civilizational paradigm, and the resulting vision of political processes in individual countries and in the world, their perception and interpretation of key political concepts, and their attitude to progress and cooperation, crises and competition, state institutions, and democracy.
Many of those who took part in the 2016 Valdai Discussion Club session, got an impression that sometimes the participants spoke different languages both literally and figuratively, talking virtually at cross purposes and being on different wavelengths. On the one hand, the mentioned differences can account for the misunderstanding. On the other hand, they cannot sweep history and major established historical facts under the carpet.
Such facts which despite the current turbulence the modern international system relies on include the outcome of the Second World War, the United Nations as a unique international institution, which can provide the framework, albeit imperfect, to coordinate various actors of the international community.
Russia has consistently furthered its interests on the world stage, relying on the above mentioned institutional and international legal basis. Meanwhile, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, those who portray themselves as “victors” in the Cold War have consistently defied both international law and the UN framework designed to take vital foreign policy decisions.
The quarter-of-the-century-long Western leadership seems to have failed to produce any positive outcome, as President Putin rightfully noted. The myopic attitude and arrogant self-confidence, careless and arbitrary interpretation of international rules and norms, and attempts to change these rules every time they stand in the way of the West, have been consequential in many regions across the globe, including North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and Eastern Europe.
Thus, from the very outset Russia has but once called on its Western partners to necessarily receive the UN Security Council mandate to carry out any operation, be it the export-of-democracy campaign or the fight against terror. But the US and its allies preferred a different way and acted unilaterally in Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The results are notorious.
We have to admit that Russia has traditionally received a predominantly biased treatment. Systematic attempts have been made to find and highlight only the negative traits of our domestic and foreign policy. Some of the questions posed by the participants of the Valdai Discussion Club, show that it is definitely the case. They are asked in such a manner as if Russia is to blame a priori, as if it has to adapt and to abandon its own interests to adopt somebody else’s viewpoint as the only correct one. The questions bearing criticism of the Russian policy have long become threadbare, and the new ones are few.
This can be exemplified by the criticism of the recent election to the State Duma. The same mundane and narrow-minded reference to Russia’s voter turnout seems a prearranged stunt. Having figures and reasoned arguments at their disposal, Russian participants and honored guests of the Forum replied to critical remarks in a bid to talk round some foreign counterparts. In Western states, by the way, electoral legislation and processes are often subject to much dispute.
The 18 September parliamentary elections in Russia saw a remarkable reduction in any risks concerning the issues of electoral transparency and fairness. At an operative level, this fact remains barely noticeable. When Russia is rebuked for its policy, all the comments appear trivial and biased. We have received them and effectively responded a hundred times.
Western analysts attend the Valdai Discussion Club, which signals their willingness to get to the crux of Russian politics. Unfortunately, some view Russia as a student of democracy, or a client state which must be necessarily instructed in something. This discourse itself does not put the country on an equal footing with the West, which has been continuously emphasized both by President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The two men clearly highlight the possibility of establishing a meaningful dialogue with Russia only on an equal and mutually beneficial basis.
One needs to examine a particular situation in the context of regional, national, historical, and cultural factors. We would like to hope that Russia’s partners will find it possible and desirable to consider the country’s activities through different and objective lenses. Only then they will start to perceive Russia far more positively.
Undoubtedly, there are critics of all stripes. There are sensible foreign experts with whom we maintain constructive contacts. At the same time, there are people who are not willing or able to broaden their horizons, or to look at the world through the global prism rather than from the West-centric, Europe- or America-centric perspective.
Vladimir Putin has but once reiterated that he holds such forums as the Valdai Discussion Club in high esteem for making it possible to hold a productive dialogue with academic circles. There is hope for a better understanding between Russia and its foreign partners as the West is acknowledged to have ratcheted down its heated rhetoric.
The expert dialogue with President Putin allowed broad scope for “rethinking Russia”. However, it remains to be seen whether the analysts jumped at the opportunity.