Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that the Russian political system is imperfect, telling top experts on Russia that he is preparing a number of reforms to fix it.
However, Putin, who announced last month that he would seek a new term as president next year, said the reforms would be evolutionary and gradual, according to the experts, who met with him in the early hours of Saturday.
The Russian prime minister rejected what he described as “alarmist scenarios” offered by the experts, who came from around the world to debate on Russia at the annual Valdai Discussion Club.
“Of course we are thinking how to make it so that citizens both at the municipal, regional and federal level feel a greater connection to the authorities, have a greater influence with the authorities and can count on feedback,” Putin said, during the three-hour-long dinner which lasted till late on Friday night.
Valdai Discussion Club is a gathering of one hundred or so experts from various countries, which is co-sponsored by RIA Novosti. The group had spent four days, sometimes in frustrated debate of Russian pre-electoral still waters, trying to forecast the country’s immediate political future and the global challenges that the country is facing.
But Putin defended the political system that he and his allies had put in place since 2000 and credited it with helping to stop the war in the Caucasus and propelling the growth of the country’s economy and social welfare system.
“I hope [the changes] will take place in a calm, evolutionary way, in harmony between the positions of the ruling elites and the citizens,” RIA Novosti reported Putin as saying.
Georgetown University Professor Angela Stent said that her main impression was there would be continuity. “I don’t think that we got any responses that would indicate that something is going to be that different; just that he is aware of the problems,” said Stent, who is also affiliated with Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
During this year’s discussions, which took place in Kaluga, 160 kilometers south-west of Moscow, most experts expressed concerns about the threat of stagnation that could result from the way in which political power is being perpetuated in the country.
Russian opposition figures, including Vladimir Ryzhkov and Boris Nemtsov, expressed their frustration at being barred from the State Duma elections that are due on December 4. Even the traditional supporters of the Kremlin policy were hard-pressed to offer plausible defense of the ruling United Russia party.
After drawn-out debates, the experts presented Putin with a critical assessment of the situation in the country and stressed that the dominating opinion during the sessions about the likely scenarios for Russia’s prospect in a five to eight years is that of inertia. The best case scenario was what Columbia University Professor Robert Legvold called “muddling through up.” The worst case scenario was degradation.
Alexander Rahr, Director of the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, DGAP, said that Putin unceremoniously brushed aside those concerns.
“Putin effectively told us that we don’t understand and don’t see how successful his leadership has been for Russia,” Rahr said. “He is confident that whatever was done by him was done right."
Russian Prime Minister reminded the Valdai Club members about the poor situation in which Russia had been economically and politically when he assumed presidency in 2000. He pointed at Russia’s recent growth, including growth in the real income of the population as well as the budget surplus achieved by his government despite the global economic crisis.
Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said Putin looked very comfortable and confident. “He never tried to be defensive in response to any questions,” Kuchins said.
He also said Putin assured his guests that he did not want to perpetuate a personalized system of power in the country. “The main goal in the next few years will be to strengthen the institutions that would promote Russian sovereignty and would long outlast the political personalities of today,” Kuchins related Putin as saying.
On the foreign policy issues, Putin said he favored continued cooperation with both the United States and European Union, but singled out U.S. missile defense program for particular criticism. “On this issue, we didn’t get any sense from him that he sees the room for cooperation there,” Stent said.
Putin also described NATO’s role in Afghanistan as positive, but “not effective,” RIA Novosti reported.
In their report, the experts had warned that Russia was under a serious threat of “degradation,” but there was little pressure for change from below.
“People have little respect for law and property, paternalistic attitudes are still strong, the level of political morality is decreasing,” the report said. As a result, many educated Russians are emigrating.
“By losing the class of creative, energetic, educated, mostly young people, Russia is evolving towards an ‘African’ way of development, essentially – to degradation,” the report said. The mood among the intellectual elite and part of the business elite is increasingly reminiscent of the alienation of the late Soviet period that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After three days of discussion in Kaluga, the experts met in Moscow with the leaders of the political parties currently represented in the Duma – Boris Gryzlov of United Russia, Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party, Vladimir Zhyrinovsky of the LDPR and Sergei Mironov of Just Russia.
Mironov predicted a gloomy future for the ruling United Russia, which Valdai Club report proposed to split into two to three parties. But said the effect of sweeping protest mood in the Russian blogosphere would have little effect on the outcome of the elections.
“The realities are such that 90 percent of the powerful civil society, which is harshly critical of the current political situation that we see [expressing itself] on the Internet, do not go to election polls, and its electoral influence is minimal,” said Mironov, who lost earlier this year his post as the speaker of the parliament’s upper chamber, Federation Council.
Gryzlov was unapologetic. He dismissed claims that the party was using the administrative positions of its members to force government employees vote. Communist Zyuganov, in the meantime, presented himself as the main hope of Russian of democracy in the current situation. Zhirnovsky offered a traditional attack on foreigners styling himself as the defender of ethnic Russians and dodging questions about his de facto alliance with the Kremlin on many practical issues.
One political change that the experts noted in Putin’s presentation Friday night was the respect he showed for President Dmitry Medvedev. He stressed that he believed Medvedev could be a strong prime minister and that Putin had expected him to come up with a seriously renewed cabinet.
Valdai Discussion Club was co-organized in 2004 by RIA Novosti news agency and Russian Council on Foreign and Defence Policy. It is co-sponsored by Russia Profile.org internet magazine, Russia in Global Affairs journal and The Moscow News weekly. The experts from around the world gather for several small thematic meetings on specific issues of international policy and one big annual conference in one of Russia’s regions, which is usually capped by a meeting with Putin.
Nabi Abdullaev contributed to this report.