A clash of two worlds existing in parallel: the Q&A Session after Vladimir Putin’s Valdai 2014 speech

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XI Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, 24 October 2014) – Part 2: Q&A Session

This second part of my essay focuses on the Q&A session that followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Final Plenary Session of the XI Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club held in Sochi in late October 2014. Part 1 deals with the President’s speech and can be read elsewhere on this blog.

Having finished his speech, Putin took a number of questions in a Q&A session from a number of people starting with questions by the British journalist Seumas Milne and (later in the session) Canadian political scientist Piotr Dutkiewicz on the issue of Crimea’s independence referendum, subsequent breakaway from Ukraine and reunification with Russia in early 2014. In answer to these questions, Putin patiently reiterated that Russia would seek conservative and proven solutions emphasising co-operation and mutual respect and that the country was not seeking to recreate an empire but will defend its own regional interests. He referred to the United Nations’ Charter – Part 2 of Article 1, to be precise – on the right of peoples to self-determination and to decide on their government without pressure from external others (even if these others are supposedly their legitimate rulers) with respect to the validity of Crimea’s independence referendum and compared the situation in Crimea with that of Kosovo in 1997.

Nevertheless in reporting his chairing of the discussion and the Q&A session in an article for The Guardian newspaper, Milne inexplicably portrayed Putin’s answer to his question in such a way as to misrepresent what he said, omitting to mention that Putin had mentioned the UN Charter as the basis that justifies and validates the Crimean independence referendum, and which also justifies Putin’s comparison of both the Crimean and Kosovar referendums. In particular, Milne omitted to give the full context of the statement in which Putin admitted stationing Russian troops in Crimea “to block Ukrainian units”, implying that Russian soldiers prevented Ukrainian soldiers from guarding polling stations when in fact Russian soldiers were protecting polling stations from being invaded and voting disrupted by Ukrainian forces. The overall result of Milne’s omissions was to suggest that Putin and Russia had wilfully annexed Crimea and had been prepared to use force and violence to brazenly claim another nation’s sovereign territory on flimsy pretexts; in other words, Putin and Russia were acting as if a No Rules global regime were already in place, and Might Is Right is one of its guiding principles. Such biased reporting might be expected of other Guardian reporters like Shaun Walker but I had expected far better from Milne.

As demonstrated by Milne and Dutkiewicz, a number of Western representatives in the Q&A session took for granted a particular point of view about Putin in which he behaves like a stereotypical autocratic dictator who has stashed several hundreds of millions of US dollars in bank accounts throughout the world and who conducts his foreign and domestic policies on the basis of self-interest, greed and expediency, and on that basis asked Putin rather slanted questions that seemed intended to rattle him and/or force him to contradict himself over points he made in his speech. Thus a media representative, Neil Buckley, asked Putin if he considered Ukraine to be a real and sovereign country and why there apparently were soldiers in Russian uniforms in Eastern Ukraine aka Novorossiya. To his credit, Putin not only patiently answered the questions (even though some were repeated but in a slightly different guise) but took the opportunity to explain something of Ukraine’s 20th-century history and how it became a hodge-podge nation of a number of ethnic and religious groups with nothing in common and even very different pre-1945 histories. He holds his own well against other speakers by  being able to recall and quote details of issues discussed with little prompting.

One of the more (though slightly) thoughtful questions came from Toby Trister Gati who wanted to know something about Russian-US relations and perhaps what Putin had in mind while criticising the US and its actions in the Middle East and in Ukraine: was he referring to the US President, the US political elite or American citizens generally. Putin seemed genuinely surprised that Gati did not know how the US is destabilising the Middle East by helping the terrorist organisation ISIS. The President kept coming back to the American insistence that it (the US) is always right and that it is an exceptional country bringing democracy to the benighted corners of the Earth.

Another of the few intelligent questions batted to Putin was one by academic Robert Skidelsky who expressed concern over Russia’s reliance on energy exports and the country’s low levels of economic diversification. This gave Putin the opportunity to expound on the economic and financial reforms that have taken place since he first became President in 2000.

An interesting question was posed by Nikolai Zlobin to Putin on whether Russia was making a great mistake by isolating itself from the rest of the world and in so doing, becoming more nationalistic and less democratic. Again this question reflects the prevalent viewpoint that Putin is re-establishing the Soviet Union in all its isolated and isolating ersatz glory in a Russian form. Putin’s reply was that Russia does not intend to shut itself off – it is the rest of the Western world, under pressure from the US, that is shunning Russia. In answer to Zlobin’s statement that Moscow has shut down various educational exchange programs, cut off certain non-political non-government organisations (NGOs) from Russian funding and clamped down on certain foreigners and dual citizenship, Putin pointed out that these programs, NGOs and the foreigners who had been asked to leave had been financed from abroad to carry out agendas that amounted to spreading propaganda of a subtle kind and portraying certain political and economic ideologies and philosophies as the only ones for Russia to follow. He also pointed out that the US has similar laws that prevent  backdoor subversion of US culture and society through exchange programs and charities. To rub salt into a wound, Putin even took apart aspects of US political culture – such as indirect electi0n of the President by an electoral college, contrary to what most American voters themselves believe – and pointed out the hypocrisy of a nation that tells others what to do but does not practise what it preaches. Putin and Zlobin both discussed nationalism in its American and Russian contexts and came to agreement on its ability to unite people in a nation and at the same time cut them off from others and set countries onto paths of isolationism and distrust of others.

In answer to a Chinese university academic on what he meant by “conservatism”, Putin assured him that he was referring to its original meaning of preserving the best of policies, attitudes, values and traditions that have stood Russia well over the decades, even centuries, and being open to everything new that is effective and worthwhile, and which helps Russia to advance and grow. Some people will recognise this as the kind of conservatism that used to exist in politics in the Anglosphere around the middle of the 20th century before it was distorted by Thatcherism / Reaganism and which is still represented by commentators like the American palaeo-conservative Pat Buchanan.

The Q&A session was generally more noteworthy for what the questions say about the mind-sets of the people who asked them than what they were actually about. The questioners generally proceeded from an assumption that the US is basically good, that the current US government has lost its way and, if only it had better politicians who were less self-interested and more genuinely interested in advancing their country’s welfare and in cooperating with everyone else, then US President Barack Obama would fulfill his presumed role as a sort of Messiah who would eliminate all inequalities and discrimination, abolish poverty and wrongdoing, and lead his people into a New American Century, all shiny and glittering with gold. There is no consideration at all that perhaps the US government and its agencies are populated by rogue elements answering to a power other than the American people, and that the country’s institutions, values and belief systems are much to blame as they continue to attract the most psychopathic personalities into the upper political, economic and social echelons. Clearly Putin operates on a different planet than many of the people who quizzed him. Thus there was a certain amount of repetition in some of the questions and an obsession with the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, suggesting that the people asking the questions couldn’t believe what they were hearing from Putin and trying to grill him until he came up with the answers they were expecting.

On that note, I conclude that the Q&A session was not in itself as highly informative and illuminating about Putin’s speech as it could have been, apart from Putin’s replies to Professor Feng Shaolei about conservatism and to Nikolai Zlobin about Russia’s relations with the rest of the world.

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