URI Professor Nicolai Petro meets in Russia with Vladimir Putin, other world leaders

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Petro: Putin is still very much on top of his game

KINGSTON, R.I. Sept. 23, 2013 – Vladimir Putin is “on top of his game.” Russia helped avert a war by cutting a deal over Syrian’s use of chemical weapons. And post-Soviet youth are striving for economic and political power.

Those topics and more came up during a weeklong conference in Russia attended by University of Rhode Island Political Science Professor Nicolai N. Petro, as well as Putin and other world leaders.

What made the annual gathering unusual this year is that Putin answered questions from politicians and journalists for nearly three hours after a speech in which he touted Russia’s global status.

America’s perceived diminishing role as a superpower and Vladimir Putin’s exception to the United States’ “exceptionalism” were also talked about during the meeting, from Sept. 16 through 20 in the Novgorod Region in northwestern Russia.

A scholar of Russian politics and culture, Petro is living in Odessa, Ukraine, for a year on a Fulbright grant researching the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is the second time the 55-year-old Kingston resident has been invited to the gathering, called the Valdai Discussion Club.

In a Q&A with URI, Petro talked about his impressions of the Russian president, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill his own people, and whether Putin is too “macho.”

Tell us about the conference? Who was there and what was the purpose of it?

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Valdai Discussion Club, created in 2004 by several prominent western Russian specialists and journalists to develop a dialogue with their counterparts in Russia and as an opportunity for both to discuss matters of common interest with Russian political leaders.

Only about 30 people attended the first meeting. More than 200 – leading foreign leaders, academics, policy analysts, and journalists – attended this year’s meeting. Every year the president of Russia, senior government officials, political leaders of major political parties, and members of the opposition give talks at the gathering.

For the first time this year, President Putin’s speech was televised live, along with a question-and-answer session with him that lasted about three hours. Each year a theme is chosen, and this year’s meeting was devoted to “Russia’s Diversity for the Modern World.” I was also invited to the conference in 2007.

What were your impressions of Putin?

Putin is still very much on top of his game. It is exceptional for any world leader to spend so much time answering questions, particularly ones that are not scripted. In this case, his speech was followed by responses from former French Foreign Minister Francois Fillon, former German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe, former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, and Dimitri Simes, the president of the Center for the National Interests and publisher of the foreign policy journal The National Interest.

There were many questions from the floor. I found it particularly noteworthy that Putin, in a live broadcast, took questions from three members of the political opposition – Vladimir Ryzhkov, Xenia Sobchak, and Ilya Ponomarev – all of whom are well known critics of his policies.

Did he say anything about the op-ed piece in The New York Times that took exception to America’s so-called “exceptionalism?”

He did. He was asked to explain how the article came about. He told the audience that it had been his idea to write something that might have an impact on the American public debate on Syria. After drafting the piece and editing it, his advisors told him to wait until after President Obama’s speech to the nation, in case there was anything in the speech that should be addressed.

It was only after Obama’s speech, in which he claimed that America’s willingness to act is “what makes us exceptional . . . let us never lose sight of that essential truth,” that Putin added a final paragraph to his original remarks, in which he said that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.”

Some observers say Russia’s stature on the world stage was elevated during the tense standoff over Syrian President’s Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill his own people. What do you think?

First of all, I think that while there is now no debate that chemical weapons (sarin) were used, there is still no international consensus on whether they were used by elements of the Syrian regime, elements of the Syrian opposition, or both. Previous U.N. findings have leaned toward the latter, but there has been no finding with respect to this latest incident, and intelligence professionals in many Western governments are divided on the matter, as are most journalists from the region.

Russia’s stature has been elevated simply because it was able to prevent a further, unpredictable escalation of the conflict. (In earlier remarks to us, Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, memorably referred to “this crazy, crazy, crazy world” we all now live in.)

Jesus’ injunction – “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) – seems to have struck a chord with Russia’s political leaders and Putin in particular, and their efforts seem to be much appreciated around the globe.

Did Putin talk about the Syrian crisis during the conference?

Yes, he did, though the previous day we also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who brought us up to speed about the latest developments in his negotiation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

If I were to summarize the gist of both Lavrov’s and Putin’s remarks, it is to remind us all that we are only at the beginning of a long process, and that if we want that process to succeed, all sides will have to make a good faith effort to bring the warring parties to the table. Russia has succeeded in doing so with the Syrian government, and the United States now has to apply itself equally in bringing the Syrian opposition under control, especially if they too possess chemical weapons.

Is America’s role as a super power diminishing?

That question came up often at the conference, but oddly not from the Russian participants. I would say that it was voiced mainly by the Chinese participants, who included several leading academics and journalists. But while the Chinese and some other Asian participants saw China’s power as rising, they also expressed uncertainty about how it should best be used. As one participant put it, the United States has relinquished its global dominance to China quite suddenly, and China is not entirely sure what to do with its newly found status.

Putin, for his part, in his question-and-answer session, took pains to point out that the United States remains the world’s leading power. This, he said, places a special responsibility on it to act responsibly, and solely within the context of established international law.

Russia seems to be a country in flux, politically and culturally. Do you see any big political or cultural movements ahead that would bring a colossal change in the government?

Actually, I see Russia as politically and economically more stable than ever. As a result, there is now an opportunity to move beyond daily survival and to look to its cultural underpinnings, to address the generational divide, that remains quite visible, between those who are nostalgic about the security and sense of purpose that they all shared in Soviet times, and those who have never had that, and are now searching for a post-Soviet common identity.

I do not anticipate any tremendous changes, though I would expect that, if the prospective Eurasian Union initiative linking Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were to flourish, it could become a powerful integrative force in the heartland of Eurasia.

Is Putin on his way out or is he more powerful than ever? Why is he so macho?

Putin still has nearly five years of his third term left to serve and I see no evidence, at this point, that he will not do so.

His “macho” image in the West seems to me to be more a reflection of the Western media’s inordinate interest in sexuality in general. In Russia Putin is most often regarded as decisive and forthright. Both men and women here tend to see these as rare virtues among men and politicians.

You talked earlier about a young generation of Russians searching for a post-Soviet identity. The Western press often makes it sound like young people in Russia are miserable. Are they? Who are these people searching for a new identity?

One of the opposition leaders at this conference, Xenia Sobchak, who is the daughter of Putin’s mentor, the late mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, spoke quite passionately on behalf of her generation. She repeatedly made the point that people 30 years old and younger have no recollection of the Soviet era and have no desire to be treated like children.

Given Russia’s integration into the world economy today, I would say that this generation has pretty much the same ambitions and the same opportunities as their Western counterparts. Culturally, they are less concerned with Russia being part of the “West” than they are with Russia being modern and economically competitive. That makes China an equally attractive destination for many young people.

Other countries often view Americans as arrogant, privileged and poorly educated. What do Russians think of Americans?

I suppose it depends on who one talks to. Educated elites in Russia see themselves as being similar to their American counterparts. On the other hand, they draw a sharp distinction between themselves and the working class, rural populations and immigrants. In that respect, global elites all seem very similar, whether they are from America, India, China or Russia.

Media contacts: Petro can be reached at 011-380508302381. His Skype address is nicolaipetro. Please keep in mind that there is a 7-hour plus time difference in Ukraine.

BIOGRAPHY: Nicolai N. Petro, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, is the recipient of a Fulbright research grant to study the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is living in Odessa, Ukraine.

Earlier this year, Petro signed a book contract with Stanford University Press to publish his next book, Blessed Is the Kingdom: The Orthodox Church and the Struggle for the Soul of Modern Russia. His Fulbright will give him the time he needs to research and write his book.

Petro received his doctorate in foreign affairs in 1984 from the University of Virginia. From 1989 to 1990, he was an International Affairs Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and served as special assistant for policy in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, as well as a temporary political attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

While in the Soviet Union he monitored local elections in central Russia, Belarus, and Latvia. From 2001 to 2002, he returned to Russia privately to work as a staff consultant to the municipal research and training center Dialog and as an advisor to the mayor of the Russian city Novgorod the Great. He joined the political science department at URI in 1991.

He has won numerous awards, including a Fulbright Lectureship to Russia, a Thornton D. Hooper Fellowship at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and research awards from the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. Last year, he was invited to advise the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on its “Scenarios for the Russian Federation” initiative.

His articles have appeared in many newspapers and journals, in both the United States and Russia. He is also the author or editor of eight books, including Crafting Democracy: How Novgorod has Coped with Rapid Social Change, The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture, and Russian Foreign Policy: From Empire to Nation-State, co-authored with Alvin Z. Rubinstein.

Pictured above: Nicolai N. Petro, 55, of Kingston, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island who participated in a conference in Russia attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders. Petro is standing in front of the Kremlin’s buildings. He is on a yearlong Fulbright grant to study the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. He lives in Ukraine.