Last week was marked with two international forums where clear messages were aired by the leaders of the states – what the international policy of Russia and Ukraine will be in the near future. The 10th annual meeting of the International Valdai Discussion Club was held in Russia’s Novgorod oblast. Like it was at the meetings of the past years, a “warm path” was created there for RF President Vladimir Putin who told about the country’s home and foreign policies without any special problems.
Valdai Club offered to Putin an opportunity to feel his moment of glory, writes political scientist, leading researcher at Moscow Carnegie Center Lilia Shevtsova in her article in ej.ru: “The Russian president got the stage to relish the unexpected role of the West’s savior from Syrian trap. But the thing is not about the fact that Putin’s plan, desperately anchored by Washington, is a fake. The moment came when the Kremlin decided that it is high time to present to the world the doctrine that must give ground for the new political regime, which has taken shape in Russia in recent years, as well as Kremlin’s international claims. However, Putin outlined his doctrine before quite a strange audience. Western politicians who have stepped off the stage, ‘domesticated’ foreign and home experts, several Russian oppositionists, who were invited as decorations, as well as a variety of other people, apparently invited for multitude.”
“Putin’s ‘Valdai doctrine’ is discouraging, too,” the Russian expert goes on, “It reminds of a hodgepodge, into which the cook threw, without looking, ingredients that cannot be combined: Sovietism, nationalism, imperialism, Orthodox fundamentalism. This mixture can hardly be called an ‘ideology,’ but its main idea, mouthed by Putin, raises no doubts. The meaning of Putin’s ‘Valdai doctrine’ is not only rejection, but also restraint of the West as a combination of liberal-democratic regulations in Russia, and beyond it – as Western foreign policy interests. … Putin rejects the West as a system, as a way of thinking, as a lifestyle. Putin mouthed the idea of ‘uniqueness’ of Russian civilization during his presidential campaign. Now he has concretized his goal. This goal is a ‘state-civilization,’ based on traditional values, ‘sealed’ above all by the Orthodox Church. And autocracy is apparently the core of this ‘state-civilization.’”
Yalta European Strategy is a summit, which has been traditionally held in Ukraine’s Crimea for the 10th time. If one draws comparison with the Valdai Club, the scale of the Russian event is considerably smaller. It is known that the forum is organized by Ukrainian businessman and son-in-law of ex-president Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Pinchuk. As Oleksii Podolsky, a public figure and complainant in the Gongadze case, has many times underlined in his interviews to our newspaper, the Yalta forum is one of the most serious and expensive annual events held by Kuchma family with an aim to whitewash the good name of the ex-president, mainly in the context of Heorhii Gongadze’s murder case. According to Podolsky, the higher the ranks of the guests are, the higher the protection of the verified contingent of people from Ukraine and beyond it is. So, whereas the Valdai Club is a comfortable place to spread Putin’s ideas, the Yalta forum is an opportunity to show one’s worth, your significance for the power, and improve Kuchma’s image.
Nonetheless, Viktor Yanukovych could not but use this ground, attended by the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fuele, in the context of Ukraine’s EU integration efforts. It was he, on a par with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who launched the Yalta Summit this year. “Ukraine is located between to big ‘monsters,’ such as the EU and Russia,” Yanukovych stated, “We feel this every day. …We never wanted, don’t want to, and will never put the West and East integration processes in contrast, we want to unite them. … Ukraine is confidently following the path of European integration. As for its relations with the Customs Union, we are looking for such a model. And I am sure we’ll find it.”
As we can see, according to the results of the meeting of the Valdai Club and the work of Yalta Summit, the opposite foreign policy directions of the states’ development were pronounced. Russia in the person of Vladimir Putin stated about its mythical “special way,” whereas Ukraine, according to Viktor Yanukovych, for another time confirmed its intentions to move to Europe. Below we bring to your attention the analysis and viewpoint of political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko in exclusive material for The Day.
By Ivan KAPSAMUN, The Day
By Volodymyr FESENKO, director of the Penta Center of Applied Political Studies, special to The Day
Anniversary sessions of the Valdai Club and the Yalta European Strategy were pivotal events in the political life of Russia and Ukraine in mid-September. News bulletins are full of high-profile reports on these forums. Naturally, the main cause is participation of the heads of state of Russia and Ukraine, other well-known politicians and prominent foreign guests. It is also important that presidents and influential politicians take part in the expert forums that analyze the place and role of Russia and Ukraine in global politics, their problems and prospects.
This writer had the luck to take part in the sessions of the Valdai Club and the Yalta European Strategy this year. This provided an excellent opportunity for an instructive comparative analysis of the two projects as well as of political signals and expert assessments of the key problems of global and domestic politics.
There was also a formal reason to compare the Valdai Club and the Yalta European Strategy. The two expert forums marked their 10th anniversary this year. It is time to make preliminary conclusions. Over these years, both Valdai and Yalta have become a well-known place of meetings between foreign and national political experts, on the one hand, and topmost governmental officials and influential politicians, on the other. These forums have some similar as well as different features.
It is perhaps not a pure chance that the Valdai Club and the Yalta European Strategy emerged almost simultaneously in 2004, the year of presidential elections in both Russia and Ukraine.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin had just been elected for a second term and his team was seeking new instruments to influence Western public opinion and project a more favorable international image of Putin’s Russia. The Valdai Club was originally established by the Russian international information agency RIA Novostsi and the Foreign and Defense Policy Council (a Russian NGO that comprised public and political figures, statesmen, and academics) as an instrument of communication with the Western experts who deal with Russia. What made the Valdai Club particular were meetings between foreign experts and Putin. As a result, many began to view the Valdai Club as Putin’s spin control exercise. There is certainly a grain of truth in these claims. But, to be fair, the Valdai Club is also developing as an international analytical society. The club actively analyzes international and Russian policies. It has published 15 analytical reports, including the annual Index of Russia’s Development. The club’s sessions and analytical materials are distinguished for pluralistic opinions and critical assessments.
The Yalta European Strategy (YES) was set in Ukraine on the eve of the presidential elections. Leonid Kuchma’s presidency was drawing to a close. A dramatic struggle for power was in the air, as was uncertainty of Ukraine’s prospects of development. The YES initiator was Viktor Pinchuk, one of Ukraine’s biggest entrepreneurs and Kuchma’s son-in-law. In late 2004 he gathered in Yalta about 30 well-known politicians and public figures from various countries to discuss the prospects of Ukraine’s EU membership. The meeting resulted in the establishment of an international collective organization, Yalta European Strategy, aimed at promoting Ukraine’s integration into Europe. Almost certainly, this was an image-building project for Pinchuk. This project (and some other things) helped Pinchuk integrate with the global elite, acquire a lot of influential foreign friends, and project a new and positive image. Annual YES conferences have become a favorite place for Ukrainian presidents to meet their foreign counterparts, a place to introduce the leading Ukrainian politicians to distinguished foreign guests. In the view of many politicians and experts, the Yalta European Strategy is Pinchuk’s most successful investment.
One of the things that distinguish the Yalta European Strategy from the Valdai Club is that the Yalta project has a clear political goal – to promote Ukraine’s integration into Europe. And those who play the main role in annual Yalta conferences are actual politicians and statesmen, both national and foreign. Yet both Yalta and Valdai host a lot of well-known foreign politicians who recently held top offices in their countries or international organizations. The Valdai Club is specific in that it performs a dual function: on the one hand, as an expert debate ground (former politicians take part in this work as experts) and, on the other, as a form of direct (both public and private) communication of Putin and other members of the Russian leadership with the foreign experts who deal with Russian issues. This year Valdai conference participants saw a real “Putin show,” in which the Russian president figured as stage director, main actor, and even interviewee. In addition to Putin, the participants could also communicate (“off record”) with Sergei Ivanov, Chief of the President’s Staff; Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs; Sergei Shoigu, Minister of Defense; Viacheslav Volodin, First Deputy Chief of the President’s Staff and the Kremlin’s main spin master; and the newly-elected Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was the only Russian top official who was absent. It was perhaps no pure coincidence.
THIS YEAR’S PARTICULARITIES
The particularity of the latest Valdai conference was participation of the selected representatives of the Russian opposition, including its new figures. There was no Alexei Navalny, but one of the debaters was Yevgeny Roizman who sensationally won the elections in Yekaterinburg. And the Russian media called a dialogue between Putin and Volodia (as he addressed the Russian oppositionists Vladimir Ryzhov) and Ksiusha (Ksenia Sobchak) the beginning of a constructive dialogue between the government and the opposition. Frankly speaking, the Russian oppositionists’ questions to Putin looked like olden-time petitions to the beloved tsar and Putin’s answers like a paternal admonition to the sons and daughters who went astray. Against this backdrop, the already traditional verbal wrangle between government and opposition representatives in Yalta confirmed again that “Ukraine is not Russia.”
What unites Valdai and Yalta is aspiration to bring the analysis of domestic political problems (in Russia and Ukraine) into line with global issues. International and global-scale problems are high on the agenda of Valdai and Yalta debates. It is very significant that both forums discussed the future of Europe. This discussion was very contradictory: most of the speakers’ optimistic confidence in Europe’s future was accompanied by alarming comments on the absence of a clear and consistent strategy of EU further development (we can only see now a search for an optimal tactic to overcome the current crisis in the European Union) and lack of strong leadership in European politics.
What also caught the eye in both Valdai and Yalta was a growing attention to China as well as the concern of the Chinese about the problems of Europe and Eurasia. There was a large Chinese delegation in Valdai. The Chinese representatives played the key role in the debate on Asia’s future. There was also a special debate on China at the Yalta conference. The chief message that the “Chinese comrades” were persistently putting across in both Valdai and Yalta was: do not be afraid of China; yes, we are now an economic giant, but still have a host of unsolved problems. Yet the China-centered debate showed: China is not perhaps being feared yet, but many begin to respect and to be concerned about it.
For quite clear reasons, Valdai also focused on how to overcome the Syria crisis and practically implement the agreement between the Russian foreign minister and his US counterpart. This was the subject of a debate and of questions to Putin, Lavrov, and Ivanov. The Russian leaders cautioned against excessive optimism and euphoria over the compromise decision on the problem of chemical weapons in Syria. It is now obvious that the conflict of interests over this problem will go on, while there are no prospects in sight about political settlement of the civil war in Syria.
The 10th Valdai conference was officially titled “Russia’s Diversity for the Modern World.” One of the main debates pivoted on the problem of a growing “value gap” in Russian society, which has a socioeconomic, socio-cultural, and political dimension. Many participants in this debate spoke of an identity crisis in Russian society. The very future of Russia will depend on the forms in which this crisis will be dealt with.
The anniversary conference in Yalta was titled “Ukraine and the World in an Era of Changes: Success Factors.” Yet most of the debates were, one way or another, about the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, including the likelihood of signing it in Vilnius. It is the problem of Ukraine’s integration into Europe that triggered a dialogue of sorts between Valdai and Yalta.
Valdai turned more than once to the Ukraine topic. This writer said at the session on the future of Eurasia that Ukraine was irreversibly, albeit slowly and with frequent hesitations and stops, drifting towards Europe. And, by applying a tough gas-related and politico-economic pressure, Russia is more and more pushing Ukraine off to Europe. So it is only natural that European experts Charles Grant and James Sherr asked Putin whether the Russian policy towards Ukraine was counterproductive. There was nothing new in Putin’s answer: the idea of one nation that rose from the Dnipro font, a warning about negative consequences for Ukraine if it signs the EU agreement, and a statement about Russia’s protective actions against the inflow of Ukrainian goods from the Ukraine-EU free trade area. Moreover, debating on the Ukraine issue with the former European Commission president Romano Prodi, Putin broadly hinted that “Europeans first want to eat what belongs to us” (a clear allusion to Ukraine) and only then are ready to make deals. But Prodi in fact suggested reaching a compromise on Ukraine by masking it a bridge between the European Union and the Customs Union. Prodi suggested that the compromise approaches taken with respect to Syria should be also applied to Ukraine. But Putin ignored this call for a compromise, and his suggestion that Ukraine should first join the Customs Union and then negotiate, together with Russia, a free trade area with the European Union looked belated and unrealistic – Putin admitted that the negotiations on a new Russia-EU agreement had been suspended since 2009.
Addressing the session on the future of Europe, Romano Prodi spelled out two very important ideas on the problems of Ukraine’s European integration. The Association Agreement should be signed (I gained an impression that Prodi was revealing a tentative and informal position of the EU on this matter), but there will be no further EU expansion to the east for at least the next ten years – the maximum of what can be done is the completion of integration processes in the Balkans (without Turkey). Incidentally, in Yalta, Turkish Minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis, expressed rather a skeptical view of Turkey’s EU membership prospects. He said that the most of what Turkey can achieve is the Norwegian option (partial economic integration without being an EU member).
The Yalta conference held a “distance debate” with Putin. The Ukrainian leadership in the person of President Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, as well as the opposition leaders, confirmed a determination to sign the EU Association Agreement and Ukraine’s irrevocable European choice. The Russian and Ukrainian attitudes directly clashed in a heated and acute debate between Sergei Glaziev, an advisor to the president of Russia, and Petro Poroshenko. The “Russia vs. Roshen debate” (jocularly called so in the conference margins) showed that Russia and Ukraine were taking irreconcilably different attitudes to European integration.
But the Yalta conference raised again a very painful and unresolved problem on the way to signing the Ukraine-EU agreement – the release of Yulia Tymoshenko. No one can say clearly now whether the Tymoshenko problem will be solved and what Brussels will do if the current situation does not change radically.
In a brilliant speech at the close of the Yalta European Strategy conference, Aleksander Kwasniewski (president of Poland in 1995-2005) quoted a historic phrase, albeit in a new political contest): “Not a step back, Moscow is behind us!” That was an appeal to the Yalta forum’s Ukrainian participants. But European leaders should also remember this. For if Ukraine and the EU fail to sign the agreement in Vilnius, Yanukovych will also begin to think of Moscow. Moscow, too, will make itself heard after the Vilnius summit.
What kind of relations will there be in the EU-Russia-Ukraine triangle after Vilnius? What impact will the presidential elections in Ukraine have on them? This is a topic for Yalta and Valdai next year. Is it perhaps time to think over a meeting between Valdai and Yalta? There are more than enough points to be discussed jointly.