October 27, 2016 — Part 1
Valdai Discussion Club
“The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow”, October 24-27, 2016
Translated by Inessa Sinchougova
Transcript, Part 1:
Moderator Timothy Colton, Professor of Russian Studies, Harvard University:
So, good afternoon, ladies and gentleman. My name is Timothy Colton. I know quite a few of the people in the room. And I’m very happy to have been asked to moderate this final session of our 2016 Valdai, as you call it.
I’d like to start with a special welcome to our lead-off speaker and main speaker this afternoon [subtitled translation by Inessa S.:] Russian President Vladimir Putin. He found the time to be here today – we all know how busy he is!
We appreciate as always your ability to answer questions at the end as well. When you retire, Mr. President, and go to write your memoirs, try to analysis just how much time you spent in your career answering people’s questions [Q&A]. I think you will be astonished!. We are really appreciative of this. Thank you for being here today.
President Vladimir Putin
Thank you. Dear Tarja, Heinz, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to see you again.
I would like to start by thanking all Russia’s and international participants at the Valdai Discussion Club gor your constructive roles in this work, and I want to thank our distinguished guests for their willingness to take part in this open discussion.
Our esteemed moderator just wished me a sound departure into retirement, and I wish that for myself too – when the time comes. This is the right approach and will be the right thing to do.
But I am not yet retired! I am for now the leader of this big country. As such, it is fitting to show restraint and avoid displays of aggressive reactions. I don’t think that this is my style in any case.
But I do think we should be frank with each other, particularly here in this forum. I think we should hold candid, open discussions, otherwise, our dialogue is pointless, stale, and will not hold anyone’s interest for too long.
I think that this style of discussion is exceptionally needed today given the great changes taking place in the world. The theme of our meeting this year “The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow” is very topical.
Last year, the Valdai forum participants discussed the problems with the current world order. Unfortunately, little has changed for the better over these last months. Indeed, it would be more honest to say that nothing has changed for the better.
The tensions created by shifts in distribution of economic and political influence continue to increase. Mutual distrust creates a burden that narrows our possibilities for finding effective responses to the real threats and challenges facing the world today.
Essentially, the entire globalization project is in crisis today, and in Europe, as we know well and hear of all the time, that multiculturalism has failed.
I think this situation is in many respects the result of mistaken, hasty and to some extent over-confident choices made by some countries’ elites a quarter of a century ago. Back then, in the late 1980s – early 1990s, there was a chance not just to accelerate the globalization process, but also to give it a different quality and make it more harmonious and sustainable in nature.
But some countries that saw themselves as victors in the Cold War — not just saw themselves this way, but said it openly — they proceeded to simply reshape the global political and economic order to fit their own interests.
In their euphoria, they essentially abandoned substantive and equal dialogue with other members of the international community, and chose not to improve or create universal institutions, attempting to bring the entire world instead under the spread of their organizations, norms, and rules.
They chose the road of globalization and security for their own beloved selves, for the select few, but not for all. However, far from everyone was willing to abide.
We may as well be frank here, as we know full well that many did not agree with what was happening, but some were unable by then to respond, and others were not yet ready to respond.
The result though is that the system of international relations is forever feverish, and the global economy cannot free itself from systemic crisis.
At the same time, rules and principles, in the economy and in politics, are constantly being distorted. We see what only yesterday was accepted as a truth and raised to dogma status, manipulated to mean the exact opposite. If the powers that be today find some standard or norm to their advantage, they force everyone else to comply. But if tomorrow these same standards get in the way of their agenda, they are swift to throw them in the bin, declare them obsolete, and set new rules. Or attempt to do so.
Thus, we witnessed the decision to launch airstrikes in the center of Europe, in Belgrade, and then came Iraq, and then Libya. The operations in Afghanistan also started without a corresponding decision from the United Nations Security Council.
In their desire to shift the strategic balance in their favor, these countries broke apart the international legal framework that prohibited deployment of new missile defense systems. They created and armed terrorist groups, whose cruelty has sent millions of civilians into refuge, created millions of displaced persons and immigrants, and plunged entire regions into utter chaos.
We see the way free trade is being sacrificed and countries use sanctions as a means of political pressure, bypassing the WTO and attempting to establish closed economic alliances with strict rules and barriers, in which the main beneficiaries are their own multinational corporations.
And we know why this is happening, too. They see that they cannot resolve all of the problems within the WTO framework, and so why not throw the rules and the organisation itself aside and build a new one instead. This illustrates what I just said before.
At the same time, some of our partners demonstrate no desire to resolve the real international problems in the world today. In organizations such as NATO, for example, established during the Cold War and clearly out of date today, despite all the talk about the need to adapt to the new reality, no real adaptation takes place.
We see constant attempts to turn the OSCE, a crucial mechanism for ensuring common European and also trans-Atlantic security, into an instrument that services someone’s foreign policy interests. The result is that this very important organization has been hollowed out.
But they continue to churn out threats, imaginary and mythical threats such as the Russian military threat. This is a profitable business that can be used to pump new money into defense budgets at home, get allies to bend to a single superpower’s interests, expand NATO and bring its infrastructure, military units ,and arms closer to our borders. Of course, it can be a pleasing and even profitable task to portray oneself as the defender of civilization against the ‘new barbarians’.
The only thing is that Russia has no intention of attacking anyone. It’s hilarious, really.
I also read analytical materials, those written by you here today and by your colleagues in the USA and Europe. It is unthinkable, silly, and completely unrealistic. Europe alone has 300 million people. All of the NATO members together with the USA have a total population of 600 million, probably. Russia today has only 146 million people. It is simply absurd to even conceive such thoughts. But no – they use these irrational ideas in pursuit of their political aims.
Another mythical and imaginary problem is what I can only call the hysteria the USA has whipped up over supposed Russian meddling in the American presidential election. The United States has plenty of genuinely urgent problems, it would seem, from the colossal public debt, to the increase in firearms violence, to the cases of arbitrary action by the police. You would think that the election debates would concentrate on these and other unresolved problems, but the elite has nothing with which to reassure society, it seems, so they attempt to distract public attention by pointing instead to supposed Russian hackers, spies, agents of influence, and so forth.
I have to ask myself, and ask you, too: Does anyone seriously imagine that Russia can somehow influence the American people’s choice? America is not some sort of banana republic, after all, but is a great power. But do tell me if I am wrong!
The question is: if things continue like this, what awaits the world? What kind of world will we have tomorrow? Do we have answers to the questions of how to ensure stability, security and sustainable economic growth? Do we know how to create a more prosperous world?
Sad as it is to say, there is no consensus on these issues in the world today. Maybe you have come to some common conclusions through your discussions, and I would be interested, of course, to hear them. But it is very clear that there is a lack of strategy and ideas for the future. This creates a climate of uncertainty that has a direct impact on the public mood.
It is unfortunate that studies conducted around the world show that people in different countries and on different continents tend to see the future as murky and bleak. The future is not calling us forward – we are afraid of it. At the same time, people see no real opportunities for changing anything, influencing events and shaping policy. Yes, formally speaking, modern countries have all the attributes of democracy: elections, freedom of speech, access to information, freedom of expression. But even in the most advanced democracies, the majority of citizens have no real influence on the political process and no direct and real influence on power.
People sense an ever-growing gap between their interests and the elites’ vision of the only correct course, the course the elite itself chooses.
The result is that referendum and elections increasingly often create surprises for the authorities. People do not at all vote as the official and ‘respectable’ media outlets advised them to, nor as the mainstream parties advised them to.
Public movements that only recently were too far left or too far right are taking center stage and pushing the political heavyweights aside.
At first, these inconvenient results were hastily declared an anomaly or chance. But when they became more frequent, they started saying that society does not understand those at the helm of power and have not yet matured sufficiently to be able to assess authorities’ labor for the public good. Or they sink into hysteria and declare it the result of foreign, usually Russian, propaganda.
Sure, friends and colleagues, I would have liked to have such a propaganda machine here in Russia, but regrettably, this is not the case. Unlike you, we do not have global mass media outlets like CNN, BBC and others. We simply do not have this kind of capability at this stage.
As for the claim that the fringe and populists have defeated the “sensible, sober, and responsible minority,” we are not talking about populists at all, but about ordinary people, ordinary citizens who are losing trust in the ruling class. This is the issue.
By the way, with the political agenda already eviscerated as it is, the elections cease to be an instrument for change. They consist instead of nothing but scandals and digging up who pinched whom where, and who sleeps with whom, if you’ll excuse.
This has crossed all boundaries of decency.
And honestly, a look at various candidates’ platforms gives the impression that they were made from the same mold – the difference is slight, if there is any at all.
It seems as if the elites do not see the deepening stratification in society and the erosion of the middle class, while at the same time, they implant ideological ideas that, in my opinion, destroy cultural and national identity, and in certain cases, in some countries they subvert national interests and renounce sovereignty in exchange for the favor of the suzerain (feudal lord).
This begs the question: who is actually the ‘fringe’? The expanding class of the supranational oligarchy and bureaucracy, which is in fact often not elected and not controlled by a society? Or is it the majority of the citizens, who want simple and plain things – stability, free development of their countries, future prospects for their lives and the lives of their children, preservation of their cultural identity, and finally, basic security for themselves and their loved ones?