Måndag, 15. September 2008     0 kommentti(a)
Igor Torbakov

Over the weekend, I finally found some time to sit down and watch the coverage of Russia’s Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev’s meetings with the participants of the Valdai Discussion Club. Luckily, the videos of the two events have been posted on the Russian leaders’ respective official websites.

The Valdai Club, set up 5 years ago by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency and Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, is a group of distinguished Russia experts and media commentators from 14 countries. It has become a tradition that every time they get together for discussions in Russia – usually in the beginning of September – the policy wonks are granted an audience with the Kremlin boss. Given the new situation in Russia – the emergence of the proverbial “tandemocracy” – this year, the foreign pundits have been lucky to get the “two for the price of one:” first, they were flown to Sochi to meet with Putin, and next day, back in Moscow, had an opportunity to chat with Medvedev.

Traditionally, Putin used these events as a channel to send out some important signals – primarily, to Western audiences. Last week, the Russian duumvirate has also made good use of the encounters with the influential Western opinion-makers. “Counterpropaganda of the highest order,” that’s how one Russian newspaper characterized the gist of the high-profile media events.

To be sure, the meetings were mainly about spin – and indeed, there was plenty of it. However, both Putin and Medvedev were going out of their way to get several important messages across:

- The West should treat Russia as an equal and respect Moscow’s interests.

- The Caucasus crisis is exactly the result of the West’s reluctance to take Russia’s strategic sensitivities into account.

- The Georgia war is a one-off – provided of course the West mends its ways and is going to discuss and negotiate with Russia all other outstanding issues in good faith.

- Despite all talk about the growing confrontation and the “new cold war,” Russia wants the continuation of cooperation with the West – but on the new terms whereby it is taken seriously and treated with due respect.

Overall, the Putin/Medvedev performance was an inevitable combination of swagger and inferiority complex – quite typical for Russia’s ages-long encounter with the West. It’s an old story: Moscow is frustrated because it desperately longs recognition and respect which the West constantly denies it. Yes, the Russian leaders defiantly say that if the West wants the new cold war, then so be it, adding arrogantly that they could not care less: after all, in the not-so-distant past Russia used to live under even worse conditions. But this is not the real message; it is just a specific Russian prelude to what Moscow truly wants to say – which is, “let’s sit down and talk.” And indeed, the desire to further develop the relationship with the West was a much more powerful refrain in the Puitn/Medvedev presentation.

The Russian “tandemocrats” surely know something about the country they are running. There’s no question Russia has become stronger over the past 8 years. But its economic situation is still quite precarious – the truth which has recently been driven home by the impact of the global economic downturn coupled with Russia’s domestic problems, including the consequences of the Georgia war. Some key figures must have been on the Russian leaders’ minds when they talked to the foreign experts last week: Moscow’s RTS stock index lost in value a staggering USD 108 billion since the May 19 peak; net flow of foreign money out of Russian private equities since July amounted to USD 916 million; finally, Russia’s current daily oil earnings are around USD 600 million (compared with USD 800 million in June, due to the drop in oil prices).

All Kremlin hubris notwithstanding, the Russian elites are hardly interested in the serious dust-up with the West.

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