This year’s session of the Valdai Discussion Club, a motley crew of world experts on Russia who meet once a year with Russia’s top leaders and visit one of its 83 regions, was somewhat down to earth and even prosaic.
No Cossack dances, not even a stroll through the city of Kaluga, 160 kilometers to the south-west of Moscow, which was chosen for this year’s session. Just a few tours of the motor manufacturing plants built with the help of investment from Germany and Spain, with the excellent four-star hotels for visiting foreign engineers in the grey surrounding fields next to them. Even the choice of a “top manager” for the meeting was no-nonsense. Unlike in previous years when Valdai Club’s members met both Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, this year only Prime Minister Putin found time to meet foreign scholars of his policy (although few people doubt that Russia is actually his policy). It seems that Medvedev was too busy with campaigning for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Or did he simply view a talk with foreign scholars as being inappropriate?
Preferring domestic audiences to foreign ones at election time would seem like a natural move, but this year’s special circumstances make one look for a more emotional explanation. The main political event in Russia this year might be called the “End of the Medvedev Delusion” – the dashing of the long-held hopes of many liberal Russians and westerners that the younger Dmitry will turn out to be more democratic than the older Vladimir. The logic for this belief is very simple: being a younger person and a former lawyer, Medvedev is automatically believed to be better than the former KGB officer who lived an extra 12 years more in the Soviet Union. But does this logic really work? This was a question on the minds of many of the Valdai Club’s debates this year. And the answer to this question? No.
On September 24th the announcement of the planned power swap between the Putin-Medvedev “tandem” laid the remainder of these hopes to rest. None of the members of the Valdai Club doubt that the swap, due to take place in March 2012, will work and that Putin will be elected Russia’s new president, with Medvedev being subsequently appointed to the position of prime-minister. For many of the Club’s members, both Russian and foreign, the end of the Medvedev Delusion is a bitter pill, and the frustration vented by two members of the Valdai Club, Russian opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, was so strong that it even enveloped the majority of the normally less critical foreign Russia scholars (during meetings with the Russian president and prime minister questions are only usually asked by foreigners). In reality, Medvedev probably did not want to give lengthy explanations to embittered people – avoiding these situations is a part of his character. Unlike Putin, he has never met the families of miners who died as a result of underground explosions. Unlike Putin, he has never held three-hour-long radio phone in sessions with the country, answering even the most absurd questions from ordinary people. Medvedev prefers to talk to “peaceful” Russian journalists and average foreign reporters, with their standard set of questions about democracy, freedom of the press and Khodorkovsky (who is a nuisance, but not a threat to the authorities, and certainly no crusading hero to the bulk of the Russian population). No unpleasant surprises here: this is Medvedev’s personal style.
With respect to this situation, can the return of Putin really be seen as a hugely negative development, as much of the press has presented it, both in Russia and abroad? Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs (a Russian analytical international policy magazine operating in cooperation with Foreign Affairs in the US) expressed a somewhat heretical thought. “In terms of Russia’s contact to European structures, Medvedev’s presidency has been somewhat hollow. Putin, being an emotional person, at least tried to explain his policy to the Europeans. Medvedev does not even bother to do that.”
The meeting of members of the Valdai Club with Prime Minister Putin, which lasted for three and a half hours, is a good example of Putin’s willingness to explain himself. Toby Gati, the former special adviser to President Clinton on Russian and Eurasian affairs, says, “He is certainly stronger than Medvedev in terms of conviction and emotion.” One could also cite Putin’s belief that energy relations between Russia and Ukraine should be built on market principles,and his bitterness about broken promises presumably given by NATO’s leaders to Gorbachev, as an example of his strength of character. One may not necessarily agree with these views, but they are Putin’s own, and this makes him a strong political figure.
Unfortunately the long meeting in a luxurious hotel near Moscow again revealed one of Putin’s other important traits: his unapologetic nature. Putin’s style is to listen to an opponent and then hold on to his own views. However, it was the discussions on the future of Russia’s democratic institutions that was probably the most heated topic of the meeting. When Timothy Colton, the former director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, expressed doubts as to the effectiveness of the system that has been established in Russia in the last 10 to12 years, Putin politely, but passionately disagreed. He cited figures related to the growing incomes of pensioners and the average Russian person, and insisted that his system had, in fact, put an end to civil war in Russia. Not everybody was convinced, including some of the members of the Valdai Club and many Russian newspapers.
“I don’t think Putin offers the nation a vision for the future,” said Richard Sakwa, a research fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme in Chatham House in London. “Even when he started talking about direct democracy, it looked like a way of avoiding the challenge of a standard democracy which exists in many countries.”
“He argued that Russia was not at a stage in its development when it was ready for full multi-party democracy,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the US. “And he went on to say that Russia would only be able have a full-blooded multi-party democracy in the distant future.”
Piotr Dutkiewicz, a professor of Russian studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada, had the impression that Putin denies the very idea of creating new parties, holding on to the view that Russia should develop the existing set of 7 political parties and expressing his “admiration” for the American two-party system.
All of this does not paint a very bright future for Russia’s democracy. But is it really so different from the latest global trend, with its virtual denial of the Greeks' right to referendum and the new, tough, and “Eurocratic” Italian prime minister? Can one be a “tough manager” of the economy as well as a democrat during elections and in parliament at the same time? The lack of differences between Putin and Medvedev can be explained not so much by the secret deal between them, but rather as a shrinking array of the choices that globalization has left to them. Unlike Poland, Russia has never had a European perspective. The possibility of Russia’s integration into the European Union has never been on the agenda, which has left the Russian elite with a very limited number of choices. Politically, “sovereign democracy”, which can be seen as the holding on to power for the sake of economic stability and the concentration of one's remaining resources, while continuing to make overtures to the West in the economy and other fields, was the only viable option for the Russian elite during the 1990s and 2000s. Putin and Medvedev both stuck to this notion of “sovereign democracy”, and the rest is nothing but nuances.
Dmitry Babich is a well-known Russian publicist. His columns appear regularly in Russia Profile.org, and he is a member of the Valdai Discussion Club. He is also a regular contributor of the Polish bimonthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia.