Letter from Russia

Exclusive Valdai Club participant talks policy with Putin and Russia’s political elite.

By Nicolai N. Petro
This is an image of Nicolai Petro

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with Valdai Club participants in the president’s residence. Third from left: Nicolai Petro
Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant

These days visitors to Moscow are probably most struck by the city’s never-ending traffic jams; $1,000-per-night hotel rooms; and vibrant, pastel-colored buildings. As a political scientist, however, the first thing I noticed, after a five-year absence, were the stark blue-and-white signs lining the city’s main thoroughfares, proclaiming “The Putin Plan — it’s Russia’s Triumph.” I was in town with a group of western academics, journalists and policy analysts to hear just what “Putin’s Plan” is from the Putin himself.

Our meeting, which took place Sept. 10-14, 2007, was sponsored by the Valdai International Discussion Club, an annual gathering of 40-45 experts from the West who meet informally with their Russian counterparts to discuss where Russia is heading. The event, which serves as part of the Kremlin’s public relations efforts, is jointly sponsored by the Russian state news agency, RIA Novosti, and the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an independent organization providing foreign policy expertise. (In the United States, the best analogy would be to sponsorship by the Voice of America and the Council on Foreign Relations.)

Now in their fourth year, the Valdai Club meetings provide a glimpse into the mindset of the Russian political elite — we get to ask them questions about Russian politics; they get to gauge how Russia is being viewed in the West. The club has become one of those essential lubricants that allows formal diplomatic relations to flow just a little more smoothly.

Each year the discussions focus on a different topic. This year it was religion and national identity, so our hosts took us to Tatarstan, Russia’s Muslim heartland, a territory almost evenly divided between Tatars and Russians, who seem to be getting along with each other rather well. Our interest, naturally, was piqued by why things turned out so well for Tatarstan, when another predominantly Muslim region — Chechnya — has been engulfed in a fratricidal struggle for much of the past decade. According to Tatarstan’s Chief Mufti, Guzman Khazrat, the secret to the region’s ethnic comity lies in the fact that it was able to avoid the power vacuum that engulfed Chechnya, which enabled Tatarstan to take charge of its own national and religious revival.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism Russian Muslims sought to rediscover their religious heritage. The absence of religious schools, however, meant that they were forced to go abroad to learn about it. It was there, in the religious schools of the Middle East, that they encountered a radical form of Islam that, much to the dismay of their parents says Khazrat, they then brought home with them.

At this critical juncture, unlike his Chechen counterpart, Dzhohar Dudayev, Tatarstan’s political leader Mintimer Shaimaiyev chose to cast his lot with Russia. He also encouraged the opening of new mosques, so that young Muslims could study their religious traditions at home, under the watchful eye of their elders. Indeed, more than 1,000 new mosques have opened in Tatarstan and, despite some rocky times in the mid-1990s, the combination of political loyalty to Moscow, regional autonomy and religious revival (for both Muslims and Christians) have transformed this into one of Russia’s most prosperous regions. Speaking at a joint panel, the region’s Chief Mufti and its Russian Orthodox Church Archbishop, Anastasy, both agreed that religious extremism stems less from zeal than it does from ignorance, hence the antidote to it is not less religion, but a better and more comprehensive religious education, a point of view wholeheartedly supported by the local political leadership.

After two days in Kazan, we returned to Moscow for a series of whirlwind visits with the leaders of the country’s major political parties. Just after we arrived, however, the government resigned. Putin named the relatively unknown Viktor Zubkov, head of Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service, as the new prime minister and our subsequent meetings all proved to be rather predictable. The pro-Kremlin parties applauded the move because, they said, it would end speculation about Putin being a lame-duck president. Just as predictably, the opposition parties described it as a cynical ploy that merely proved how unpredictable Putin is.

The intense political speculation in the press about how this would affect Putin’s own future plans overshadowed our meeting in Moscow with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch of Moscow Alexei II, and his description of the astonishing religious revival Russia has undergone in the past 15 years. (I did, however, write a comment for the Christian Science Monitor on this after my return.)

After a long day, we were all looking forward to Friday’s meeting with President Putin at his residence in Sochi.

Rarely do heads of state get to spend more than a few minutes with people outside their closest staff and family, so it says a good deal about Putin’s interest in conveying his views to Western audiences that he spent three hours answering our questions over lunch, and then another hour informally with us in his nearby villa overlooking the Black Sea.

Since the meeting was thoroughly covered in the press, I will focus on what was not widely reported. I was struck by Putin’s unsolicited reflection on how much his family’s roots in the rural village of Turginovo meant to him. As he put it, the fact that he could trace his ancestry through the local village church back 300 years made him feel “a deep connection with the country” and its moral core. This led him to reflect on the importance of morality in society, and of how individuals with moral authority have more influence in society than those who hold government office. Indeed, Putin said, it was precisely this moral authority that “in large measure explains the success of the dissident movement in Russia. These were people who were honest with the country and its people, and the people felt it.” As someone whose family was deeply involved in assisting Soviet dissidents — as a leading member of the Union of Russian Solidarists (NTS) during the 1970s, my father trained couriers, known as “eagles,” who traveled to the USSR to establish contact with and smuggle financial support to political dissidents — I felt this was a poignant reminder of how much Russia has changed since the collapse of communism.

During our meeting, Putin vowed that he would continue to promote his vision of a stable and prosperous Russia after leaving office next March. Although he did not tell us what he intends to do, I was struck by his remark that he wanted to devote himself to “strengthening the multiparty system in Russia.” He also told us, rather wistfully, that someday he would like to be sitting across the table from the president of Russia, asking the questions rather than answering them.

Since our meeting last September, Russia’s political landscape has become quite a bit clearer. Cashing in on Putin’s enormous popularity, United Russia won a resounding victory in the December 2007 Parliamentary elections and, along with three other centrist parties, has nominated Dmitry Medvedev, currently Putin’s first deputy prime minister, for the presidency. Medvedev, in turn, has said that, if elected, he would like Putin to serve as his prime minister.

Some analysts question whether a popular prime minister will remain subordinate to the president. While some see a strong prime minister possibly foreshadowing a stronger parliament, others fear the possibility of institutional rivalries and future instability.

Whatever the future may hold, for now at least, Russians are more optimistic about their country and its future than at any time in the past two decades.

Additional reading:
Putin: Sourpuss of the Year? (OpEdNews.com)
Behind the closed doors of the Valdai Club (RIA Novosti)
Putin has been vilified by the West — but he is still a great leader (Daily Mail)
Kremlin reshuffle dominates Valdai club talks in Sochi (Russia Today)
A visit with Putin (International Herald Tribune)