Having met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Sochi, participants in the Valdai International Discussion Club almost unanimously agreed that he intends to remain in Russian politics for a long time.
Richard Beeston, foreign editor of the London-based Times, told RIA Novosti: "The prime minister did not tell us for sure if he was going to run for president or not but his comparison with Roosevelt who served four terms tells you a lot. It looks like he wants to move in that direction."
Others at the meeting agree that the prime minister did not seem ready to retire. Dressed in a light-colored summer suit and fit as an athlete, Putin gave rather abrupt answers to any question he saw as an attempt to present Russia as in some respect inferior or at least lagging behind world standards. When Beeston asked him whether Russia should at long last bury Lenin, Putin responded with a question: why don't the Brits remove the monument to Oliver Cromwell, which still stands by the Houses of Parliament. Just like Russia's revolutionaries, his hands were steeped in blood - as Irish Catholics or Scottish Royalists will willingly attest. Putin did not dodge the question about the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky - "oligarchs' Nelson Mandela," as one Valdai Club member, Alexander Prokhanov, put it. Putin hinted that Khodorkovsky did not make his billions just by the sweat of his brow and that he should be held accountable before the law, as is the accepted practice world over.
"I got the impression that Putin must have a whole team of advisers who help him pick examples of Western countries experiencing similar problems to Russia, and that helps him fend off difficult questions," Richard Beeston observed.
Piotr Dutkiewics, a professor from Carleton University in Ottawa, said that after the meeting with Putin, he was convinced that thanks to its less than sensible policy towards Russia, the European Union (EU) has moved itself to second or third place among Russia's partners.
Putin described China as one of Russia's "natural partners," something Dutkiewics understands as meaning more than the "strategic partnership" that Russia has with most countries in the world. The Russian prime minister also spoke about Russia's very good relations with individual EC countries (Germany and Italy, for example) and the "resetting" of relations with the United States. Dutkiewics observed that the EC is trying to compel Russia unilaterally to tailor its legislation to European standards, while NATO refuses to consider Russia's concerns about Georgia and Ukraine's membership of the bloc. He concluded that by pursuing such a policy they have struck themselves off the list of Russia's priorities.
Dutkiewics believes that by its actions over the last few years, the EU has simply failed to meet Russia's expectations. He fears that now the Russian pendulum will swing too much in the opposite direction, away from the EU, which he indicated would also be a mistake.
The Valdai Club was established in 2004 by RIA Novosti together with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and the magazines Russia in Global Affairs and Russia Profile. The majority of its participants agree with Dutkiewics that Putin had reason to be disappointed in both the EU and the United States, where people prejudiced against Russia were calling the shots in the early 2000s.
Adam Michnik, the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, expressed it thus: "I have been saying for a long time that the West's unconditional support for Saakashvili was a mistake, while periodical 'chills' in relations with Russia were a result of the crass stupidity of our own Polish leadership. I am embarrassed to read as Andrei Illarionov, a Russian economist whom I used to respect, accuses Russia of staging the presidential plane crash near Smolensk. But Russia is also often in the wrong. No matter how bad Saakashvili may be, the deployment of Russian troops to Georgian territory created a very unpleasant precedent in the entire post-Soviet history - for the first time Russian troops officially and uninvited set foot on the territory of a sovereign state. Russia's leaders should not forget that."
But the meeting with Putin confirmed what the Valdai Club members had heard from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - tensions on the borders with Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia really were subsiding.
"We didn't hear any of the prime minister's usually belligerent rhetoric about Saakashvili," Richard Beeston observed.
Michnik said on this score: "I get the impression that Russia is not all that worried about Saakashvili. He will hardly dare mount a new military operation because it would be political suicide. And his reputation is too bad for him to exert any diplomatic pressure on Russia. Only a new Georgian president could push Russia to resume dialog."
While in some areas dialog with the West is complicated, Russia is coping quite well with a number of its problems. Putin noted at the meeting that the Nord Stream pipeline, now being laid along the bottom of the Baltic Sea, will start gas supplies next year. "We will build the South Stream pipeline just as fast," Putin promised and expressed his doubts that the Nabucco project will be realized this fast. The EU-backed Nabucco pipeline is designed to supply Europe with Turkmen and Azerbaijani gas bypassing Russian territory.
Given these conditions the Russian prime minister had every reason to feel confident, as all participants at the meeting observed.
RIA Novosti commentator Dmitry Babich
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.