The 12th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, which will be held in Sochi on October 19-22, will focus on adjusting the rules of the game to the new balance of forces in the world and on various aspects of armed confrontation.
Lenta.ru talked with political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, Academic Director of the Valdai Club, on the themes of the upcoming meeting, whether politicians listen to the opinions of club participants, and if such events are necessary.
The topic of this year’s conference is Societies Between War and Peace: Overcoming the Logic of Conflict in Tomorrow’s World. In the Russian language, the word “мир” has two meanings: peace and society. Which of them is your choice for this year’s conference?
Both. We had an ambitious idea, which turned out to be in tune with recent events, that is, to talk about the European events of 200 years ago -- the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Vienna Congress, which created a relatively balanced system of relations in the Old World for several decades. We believe there are similarities between what happened 200 years ago and current events. These similarities are relative, as there are quite a few obvious differences. But we are talking about the development of a multipolar world, which needs regulatory systems and institutions. In the 19th century, Europe was a multipolar world in miniature. The system, which was created in 1815 and remained effective for nearly hundred years, did not set strict boundaries but offered methods for restoring peace in crises.
But conflicts happened nevertheless.
Yes, there were the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War and the Balkan Wars in the 19th century. After each of them, a diplomatic conference was convened to adjust the rules of conduct with due regard for changes in the balance of forces. We need a similar mechanism now. It’s unclear what it should be like. Two centuries ago, periodic challenges were followed by the settlement of differences at diplomatic conferences. This is hardly possible now, but we do need something like it.
When we decided on the theme for this year’s conference, we also had in mind one of the most important novels in Russian literature, Leo Tolsoy’s War and Peace, which describes Europe’s overhaul in the early 19th century. Tolstoy was not only a great writer but also a philosopher who noticed and put down on paper the events that changed the course of history and what he described as the motive forces of history. By the way, following the reform of Russian orthography the novel’s title acquired more than one meaning, bringing the novel closer to the writer’s idea. The current word “мир” is a combination of the pre-reform “миръ” as the absence of war and “мiръ” as society. Like Tolstoy, we are interested in the influence of war on peace and society. This year’s Valdai Club conference will focus on the way war, brute force and militarism have influenced society over the past 200 years since the early 19th century.
What other issues will the conference address?
Of course, we will discuss the topical issue of information warfare and the perception of conflicts. The economic plenary session will discuss economic interdependence as a way to contain conflicts or to aggravate them. Another panel will be devoted to the possibility of a new “golden age” of diplomacy similar to the one it experienced in the 19th century. And there will be a special session on the Middle East.
It appears that the theme for this meeting, war and peace, was chosen a long time ago. Have the recent events such as Russia’s involvement in Syrian conflict influenced the conference agenda?
No, they haven’t. On the contrary, they showed that we were right to choose the theme of war and peace. Actually, war and peace has long become the governing theme in the modern world, what with conflicts that flared up in the Middle East years ago and a war in Ukraine. But the Syrian issue has increased tensions and will be discussed at all panel meetings, as well as at a special session.
Creating a new system for adjusting the rules of the game is a challenging goal. Will politicians take into account the results of discussions on the Valdai platform? Will the decision-makers who can change these rules listen to the opinion of the Valdai experts?
Some decision-makers attend the Valdai Club conferences. Vladimir Putin usually addresses the closing plenary session. He has done so 11 times, and we hope he’ll do it this year too. I don’t know if the Valdai Club discussions influence Putin’s views or policy, but it’s a fact that he knows about the issues on our agenda.
Do the Valdai experts’ opinions carry weight beyond Russia?
People beyond Russia are most of all interested in the president’s address. However, the Valdai Club has changed over the past two years. Before that, our discussions were like Russia’s presentation to the world, an attempt to explain what happens in Russia. It was not so much a presentation of Russia’s world outlook, as the presentation of Russia as a country. Our goal has changed over the past two years: the Valdai Club has positioned itself as an analytical center dealing with global processes and informing the public around the world about Russia’s view of these processes. An example of this is Putin’s address at the club in 2014, when he spoke in detail about the possibility of formulating new rules. I don’t know what Putin will speak about this year, but I can assume that he will also touch upon hostilities and the use of military force.
Valdai is an international club. Has the deterioration in Russia-West relations over the past 18 months affected the club’s format of experts? Do you have more Eastern than Western experts now?
I wouldn’t say so. There’s a core group of experts who have attended the majority, if not all Valdai Club meetings. Sometimes some of them miss a meeting for objective reasons, but the core group hasn’t changed much. At the same time, we tried to expand the number of contributors without tilting East. But the number of Chinese experts has increased from the past year.
Have relations with foreign experts changed amid the worsening ties with the West?
The Western interest for contacts has not changed. It has even increased in some cases. But the essence of our relations has changed dramatically. The environment for dialogue is different. Our relations have become polarized, with an increased share of ideology. It’s either official statements and the exchange of familiar arguments, or a unidirectional discussion when our expert is invited as the defendant.
What does this mean?
The invited expert from Russia is bombarded with the Western grievances against Moscow and urged to make excuses for his country’s actions. This may be interesting, but it is mostly a senseless undertaking. We’ve had this kind of thing before, but not as often as we do now. Moreover, as I know from my personal experience, after such discussions foreign colleagues thank us for an interesting discussion and say that they needed to hear a dissenting opinion, adding that we are right in many things. But they say so off the record, while very few dare support a Russian colleague in the open. The Valdai Club is an exception to this rule, as its events are held on a parity basis, with different opinions presented in equal share, which makes our discussions more productive.