September 13, 2007
Some Notes on the Valdai Discussion Meeting
By Robert Bridge
The Valdai Discussion Club, an annual event that gives about 100 journalists and academics the ability to grill Russian leaders, gathered this week in Moscow.
Wednesday's list of speakers was impressive. 10:30 AM: Oleg Morozov, First Deputy State Duma Speaker and First Deputy Head of the United Russia parliamentary party; 1:00 PM: Gennady Zyuganov, Chairman of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation; 3:00 PM: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader; 6:00PM: Sergei Ivanov, Acting Prime Minister.
The biggest news of the day - that the Russian government had tendered its resignation - was announced just as the firebrand Zhirinovsky was preparing to address the audience. The LDPR party leader kept his comments about this startling revelation muted, preferring instead to attack what he perceived as the double standards of the West, including its demand that Russia sell its oil and gas below market prices.
One academic in the front row had the temerity to tell Zhirinovsky that he was perceived as a "political clown" by some people in the West. This comment triggered a slowly rising avalanche of emotion that started somewhere in the voting booths of Georgia and Ukraine and ended on the burned out battlefields of World War II. Zhirinovsky suggested that the members in the audience weigh the collective IQ rates of their respected political parties back home against those of the "intelligent voters of the LDPR." Despite the raw tongue lashing, the attendees could barely contain their interest, not to mention laughter; Zhirinovsky has that rare ability as a speaker to chastise his listeners without alienating them.
But the best part of Zhirinovsky's diatribe was when he argued that the average Russian would rather drive a Russian-made KAMAZ truck as opposed to a Mercedes Benz, the argument being the driver would never get stuck in the mud or a traffic jam. So imagine the reaction when we followed Zhirinovsky to the parking lot and watched as he climbed into an awaiting black Mercedes limousine.
Next stop: lunch with Zyuganov at a Ukrainian restaurant. I have three impressions of this gathering: first, the little book of collected anecdotes that the Communist leader signed and presented to each participant. Second, Zyuganov was the only politician to mention the threat of global warming, which I thought to be rather forward thinking for such a dusty party. The last impression involved an ugly argument that erupted between two attendees on the way to lunch.
In Sept, 2004, John Laughland, a columnist with the British Guardian, wrote an article entitled, "The Chechens' American Friends" that apparently upset more than one neocon in Washington. In a nutshell, Laughland questioned why the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC), which he labels as a 'rollcall of the most prominent neoconservatives who so enthusiastically support the "war on terror,"' failed to practice what it preaches when it demanded that Russia hold peaceful negotiations with terrorists.
So during the brief walk to the Zyuganov lunch, a member of a Washington think tank, who I will refer to only as 'Mr. K,' decided it was a convenient time to give Laughland a piece of his mind. I was about 5 steps behind them, but it was obvious heated words were being exchanged. In fact, I was waiting for some punches to be thrown. Laughland later told me about a three-year-old article he had written, saying that the offended Mr. K called him a "lazy shit journalist." Incidentally, 'lazy' Mr. Laughlin had the 'audacity' to question Oleg Morozov one hour before about "the threat of western influence in the upcoming Russian elections." I could not help wondering if Mr. K was really so upset about a three-year-old article, or if Laughland's question simply annoyed him.
Morozov assured the audience that there would be competition in the upcoming presidential elections, but no candidate could diverge too far from President Putin's "proven and accepted path" because the voters would simply not accept it.
After lunch, we boarded a bus for 'Dom Druzhba' (House of Frienship) on New Arbat to meet with Sergei Ivanov. Despite Wednesday being one of the most turbulent days for the Russian government in recent years, Ivanov seemed to be in high spirits. He had nothing negative to say about the appointment of Viktor Zubkov, 66, as the new prime minister. He also denied suggestions that there were great similarities between September 1999 (when Putin was selected for the same office - only to become president 4 months later when Boris Yeltsin announced his retirement during a televised presidential message on New Years Eve, 2000) - and today.
Although Wednesday left some doubts as to the future direction of Russian politics, one thing seems crystal clear: Putin is certainly no lame duck president, and will continue to play a strong hand in Russian politics long after 2008.