Сергей Караганов

Cracking Putin’s code

MOSCOW. (Politichesky Zhurnal — RIA Novosti) — Vladimir Putin met with participants in the Valdai Discussion Club on September 9, but it has taken until today for an adequate response to come out of the event.

MOSCOW. (Politichesky Zhurnal — RIA Novosti) — Vladimir Putin met with participants in the Valdai Discussion Club on September 9, but it has taken until today for an adequate response to come out of the event.

The Valdai Club unites leading political scientists, experts on Russia, and heads of major foreign policy and research centers. The president’s message to the political elite, the main audience, reveals a covert ideological struggle in the top echelon of power. Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and Deputy Director of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences Sergei Karaganov attended the meeting with Putin. He talks about the problems raised there with Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation and member of the Public Chamber.

Karaganov: «The road we are following has not yet been defined.»

Nikonov: What were your impressions of the meeting with Putin? How sincere was the president, and what signals did you receive from him? What was his message to the West?

Karaganov: He said that Russia was following a normal and natural road, and that we were not going to attack anyone. He also said we would be pragmatic to the utmost and pursue our national interests without any illusions about our partners and friends.

Nikonov: What was the format of the discussion? On the one hand, it was held behind closed doors, while on the other, it was clearly designed for dissemination by the media. What was the reason for that?

Karaganov: The discussion wasn’t closed. There was no press, but all participants were allowed to quote from and comment on the meeting.

Nikonov: But was it assumed that the discussion would be covered?

Karaganov: Of course it was. After all, one third of those present shape Western attitudes to Russia at the expert level. It would be more precise to say «world attitude» because there were participants from China as well.

Nikonov: There are many disagreements here about Putin’s interpretation of «sovereign democracy» at the meeting. Ostensibly, the West made the conclusion that Putin was giving up this idea. Later on, experts in Moscow said that in reality the West misunderstood him. Could you please comment?

Karaganov: Putin said that there were debates on this issue, that this expression contains ideas from different spheres and is not based on ideology. But there is a search to define the system which we are building. It is abundantly clear that we are building a democratic and strong power, but the road we are following has not yet been defined. «Sovereign democracy» is one of the definitions, but Putin distanced himself from it. He also gave up the label of «energy super power» and made a point of doing so.

Nikonov: But there are people who think that it is not at all important what Putin says on this score, because today he may say one thing, and tomorrow he will come up with something else. We’d simply like to understand what motivates him when he says so.

Karaganov: The world is a stage for the struggle of ideas. Militarization affects some aspects of politics, but ideology determines it all. This is a fait accompli. A country’s weight in the world depends on its image, on perceptions (either right or wrong) of its goals, might, potentialities, and its leader.

In the last few years, our leader has been trying to create what he sees as the image of a strong, confident, and independent power.

Nikonov: But one word may prevail over the other in the expression «sovereign democracy».

Karaganov: Please don’t ask me. You should address this question to the author of the expression. I don’t think this is a good definition, and I have even written on this score. It’s an oxymoron. Democracy can only be sovereign because it means the power of the people. True, some countries with a democratic facade are being controlled from abroad. There are also autocracies which are controlled in the same manner. And finally, there are sovereign autocracies. Kim Il-Sung’s country is the most sovereign autocracy. China is more advanced and flexible. As Putin said, we want to be as sovereign as Japan, Germany, and the United States.

Nikonov: Some Western political scientists have also interpreted what our president said. This is what they quote: «Russia is not seeking the role of a superpower, but wants primarily to use oil and energy in general to upgrade and diversify its economy.» In Russia, these words were perceived as all but defeatist. What happened? What is the problem with the Energy Charter? Judging by the verbatim report, Putin was very emotional about this. He repeated more than once: «We are not throwing a fit here.»

Karaganov: No, he wasn’t very emotional. He explained for the umpteenth time that we do not want to let anyone control our gas pipelines. That’s all. No emotions involved. When renouncing the status of energy superpower, he said that this definition was no good because such powers cannot exist. This term is being imposed on us in order to portray Russia as a menacing power.

We don’t want to be such a power, and we cannot and will not become one.

Nikonov: Two other ideas stunned me in the verbatim report. The first one is about the participation of top government officials in managing big companies. In effect, Putin has approved of this idea. The other idea seemed quite absurd to me. He said that oil money from the world markets will not go into the economy, and that we’ll be looking for other resources.

Karaganov: As for the second idea, I either misunderstood it, or didn’t interpret it as you said. As for the first one, Putin explained it by the need to consolidate the state’s role in key industries. He said that with time we’ll be able to switch to a system of independent observers who would represent the state’s assets on the board of directors.

Nikonov: Yes, that is what we heard. Do you agree that a manager stands to gain from the assets he controls?

Karaganov: That question is not for me, either.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board.