Discussions behind the scenes at the Valdai meeting
The 10th anniversary meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club lasted somewhat longer than usual, but the annual meeting of Valdai members with Russian President Vladimir Putin was no less incisive in terms of debate than any of its predecessors. That, first and foremost, is what Valdai-2013 will be remembered for: continuous, open, and engaged discussion.
One nuance of the Valdai meetings is that, in addition to previously agreed upon topics, the agenda is always supplemented by a couple of leitmotifs dictated by current events. This year's keynotes highlighted two aspects of Russian foreign policy: the Syrian crisis and Moscow's attitude to its former Soviet satellites, particularly in the context of Eurasian integration and uneasy relations with neighboring Ukraine.
Both subjects, although not formally part of the Valdai program, were actively discussed both during the meetings and on the sidelines. In both instances, most of the participants from the U.S. and Europe held cautious and critical assessments.
As a result, the Russian delegation endeavored to explain that a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis should be a common cause and that a unilateral approach would be misguided. They also explained that the re-integration of the former Soviet Union is an economic project aimed at the survival and development of all countries participating in today's competitive world. At times, they persuaded their foreign counterparts of the validity of Russia's position, and at times, not.
The thorny issue of U.S.-Russian relations cropped up less often than might have been expected. It seemed as though the negative mood hanging in the air since the end of 2012 had finally dissipated as a result of the Kerry-Lavrov talks in Geneva, when for the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. jointly brokered a deal to resolve an international crisis.
Now the Syrian settlement needs to bring on board China, Europe, India, and Brazil. China's role is especially important, given that it could well make a financial contribution to the elimination of Syria's chemical arsenal.
This year's official topic was: "Russia's diversity for the modern world." But in reality, the intellectual marathon was not limited solely to Russia. Attention and discussion were focused, above all, on global diversity political, economic, and spiritual.
The increased sensitivity of the European participants in relation to any criticism or concerns about the processes taking place within the European Union was eye-catching. Even the mildest and most amicable nod in that direction was ignored. The Europeans seem startled by their declining clout in world affairs and are trying to convince everyone that the European Union has successfully recovered from the crisis. Their attempts so far remain less than convincing.
For Russia, as always, the most sensitive issue was the problem of corruption and the administration of justice. It is no coincidence that the forum put this matter directly to all official Russian representatives in attendance, both national and regional. However, progress in the fight against these two Russian problems remains elusive. That can do nothing but hurt.
As regards the U.S., the most acute point of discussion was Americans' own perception of themselves and the extent to which such a view dovetails with how the world sees them. The discussion was provoked by an op-ed article by Vladimir Putin in The New York Times, published a few days ahead of Valdai. In my opinion, our U.S. colleagues failed to offer a conclusive answer to the question of how their country's "exceptionalism" fits into the new world order.
As for Asia, it is looking for a way to accommodate its immense diversity in the modern world. The continent's boisterous economic development and incomparably rich spiritual world sit squarely opposite its numerous long-standing conflicts, mutual suspicion, and internal competition. While rapidly growing China is still trying to understand its role in the world, the rest of the world now requires that it make a choice and assume responsibility.
The Valdai Club is a very effective vehicle for promoting dialogue between Russia and the global intellectual elite, despite that the fact that we are by no means always able often for objective reasons to convince our foreign colleagues of the fair-mindedness of Russia's views on certain issues of domestic and international significance.
At the end of the day, the most important facet of Valdai is its ability to make Russia's views and assessments a natural and necessary part of the global intellectual debate. The Club's 10th anniversary meeting was yet further proof of that.