Analysts taking part in this year's Valdai international discussion club in Russia met Monday with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Delegates at this annual forum told the media that Mr Lavrov kept an open mind and did not try to avoid sensitive subjects. The annual conference brings together some of the world's most influential experts on Russia in areas such as political science, sociology and economics.
"To me, Russia's current effort to improve relations with Poland is apparent," said Leszek Miller, a former Polish prime minister. "And that effort is creating a resonance in Warsaw. Our foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, who never had anything positive to say about Russia before, has changed somewhat following Obama's declaration of a U.S.-Russian "reset" and after the Smolensk tragedy [when President Lech Kaczynski and other senior Polish officials were killed in a plane crash]. This gives me hope for an optimistic outlook."
In a survey conducted on the Valdai forum's sidelines, both Russian and foreign participants were asked to assess the changes that had taken place in this country over the past year. Seventy-four percent of the respondents, all of whom were interviewed on condition of anonymity, noted certain improvements in Russia's diplomatic activity.
Foreign policy was not the delegates' only area of interest during the forum, though. They did a lot of sightseeing, visiting medieval Russian towns on Lakes Onega and Ladoga, Kizhi Island, famous for its historical wooden architecture, and the St. Trinity Monastery founded by Alexander of Svir, St. Petersburg's patron saint. While sailing on the river liner Kronstadt, Russian experts from the United States, the UK, France, Poland, China and other countries had just enough time to hear and collect opinions on this country's history and its current course.
By tradition, discussions taking place within the Valdai format are also attended by opposition politicians and experts.
"I notice the Russian opposition activists, not foreigners, are the harshest critics of Russia's status quo," said Petr Smolyar, a commentator from the French newspaper Le Monde. "I was pleasantly surprised by the level of pluralism we had in our discussions."
The Valdai forum is being held for the seventh time. This year's theme focused on Russia's historical legacy and its impact on the country today. Participants decided to consider this issue from today's perspective: How successful were the nation's previous attempts at modernization and what should be done to ensure success today? Both the foreign and the Russian participants identified three major examples of systemic modernization in the country's past: the Petrine reforms of the 17th-18th centuries, the abolition of serfdom during the reign of Alexander II, and the pre-WWII industrialization campaign of the Stalin era.
These three periods, as well as the lessons to be learned from them, were at the center of the debates at this year's Valdai forum.
Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy chairman of the Bank of Russia, said all three modernization bids involved institutional reform, and were accompanied by an active engagement in foreign intellectual resources. Even in the Stalin era, Communist Party leadership adopted a special resolution allowing technology specialists from the Soviet Union to take part in modernization programs in the West. Also, this country was making extensive use of its foreign intelligence sources to draw on the world's expertise in science and technology.
However, today's Russia faces difficulties in borrowing advanced Western technology amid fierce global competition between a limited number of innovators. The Valdai delegates agreed that high-paying jobs and modern research facilities are not enough to encourage young homegrown talent to stay in the country. In their view, this challenge will be impossible to meet without streamlining the country's political institutions, whose efficiency still leaves much to be desired.
These problems are, obviously, rooted in Russian history, a phenomenon widely discussed on board the Kronstadt cruiser. They stem primarily from Russia's powerful tradition of absolutism and from the fact that all three of the country's major modernization attempts were initiated from the top. It was the Establishment, not the people, who started the modernization movements.
The following remark by a public figure of the times of Czar Alexander II, one of Russia's most liberal-minded rulers, sums up the country's mainstream ideology in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries: "Reforms in Russia can only be initiated by the powers that be."
However, modern reform calls for the active participation of society in general. Richard Pipes, a renowned Russian historian at Harvard University, pointed out that the Russian public needs to come out of the trenches, where they have been living for centuries. He said he had seen Russia change enormously since his first visit here in 1957, and noted that, oddly enough, foreigners are not as harsh in their criticisms of the country's current policies as Russians themselves.
It was St. Petersburg Mayor Valentina Matviyenko who told the Valdai forum about the Russian authorities' ongoing efforts to reach out and interact with members of the public. She received the group at the city hall during their stopover in St. Petersburg. Ms Matviyenko said that when making a final decision as to the construction of the Gazprom high-rise business center, the city's authorities would take public concerns into account. She added that amongst the local expert community and people in the arts, this project now has more supporters than detractors.
"By and large, I have a positive impression of what I'm witnessing in my favorite foreign country, Russia," said Adam Michnik, editor in chief of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, "although there're still instances of over-influence, especially with regard to the former Soviet republics and to projects favored by local governments."
"I agree that President [Mikheil] Saakashvili is a curse for Georgia rather than a blessing, and I've repeatedly touched on this in my paper," said Michnik, a newcomer at this year's Valdai forum, "but Georgia and other new sovereign states should be approached with due respect, something Russian officials must keep in mind."
RIA Novosti commentator Dmitry Babich
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.