We were of course delighted to see the wonderful Nicolai Petrov of the Carnegie Center publish an op-ed in the Moscow Times that makes a perfect bookend for our editorial condemning the Valdai charade. We hope he’s right when he says that even the Valdai participants themselves are getting creeped out by the immorality of it all.
Amid all of the events surrounding Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia these past few weeks, I nearly forgot that the latest session of the Valdai Discussion Club was about to begin. The club was launched five years ago and is one of the Kremlin’s most successful public relations projects. This time it took place in Rostov-on-Don, Grozny and Sochi.
The proceedings usually consist of two days of discussions among a wide range of experts on Russia who do not necessarily have close ties to the Kremlin. This year’s theme was “Russia’s Role in the Global Geopolitical Revolution at the Start of the 21st Century.” Aside from the lure of meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, the club offers participants the opportunity to become acquainted with a variety of the country’s regions, since the venue changes from year to year. The first year it was held in Valdai, near Veliky Novgorod, the following year in Tver, then in St. Petersburg, Khanty-Mansiisk, and last year, in Kazan.
A number of my acquaintances take part in the Valdai club. In all fairness, this year some of them chose not to attend and meet with Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, nor were they interested in listening to Putin’s latest invective. Indeed, Putin treated the club participants to another conspiracy theory when he claimed that Western nongovernmental organizations operating in the North Caucasus were supporting secessionist movements across the region, using South Osssetia as a pretext.
Among the participants in the final session of this year’s Valdai Discussion Club were specialists and journalists from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovakia, Canada, Japan, China, India, Israel and Iran. The guest list changes each year at the initiative of both the Kremlin and the attendees. This year, there were significantly more journalists and fewer analysts than ever before. Also, there were conspicuously fewer experts from the United States than usual, but more from other influential countries.
Is it morally justifiable for so many Western specialists to participate in Valdai — a project that is increasingly used as a blunt Kremlin propaganda tool? The original idea was to give those global Russia specialists the rare opportunity to obtain information directly from the country’s top leaders, to pose questions to Putin and simply to feel as though they were among a privileged few. Now things have changed. The transcript of the meeting with the president is immediately posted on the conference’s web site, and there is not much exclusivity surrounding the event anymore.
Moreover, with the emphasis this year on Chechnya, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Kremlin spin doctors used the Valdai participants as PR pawns more than they ever did before. Take, for example, a comment in Kommersant attributed to Alexander Rahr, who took part in this year’s Valdai session, that 80 percent of the club’s participants “share Russia’s position in the conflict in South Ossetia.” If this is true, big kudos to the Kremlin PR architects for a job well done.
Last year, one of my colleagues said it was immoral for Western experts to accept such regular invitations from the Kremlin because by doing so, they are supporting Russia’s anti-Western policies. Admittedly, at that time, I thought her position was a bit radical, but my feelings have changed after this Valdai meeting.
And I am by far not the only person who feels this way. I expect that many Valdai participants will turn down the Kremlin’s invitation to attend the conference next September.