At this year’s annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, the presence of the opposition and television cameras ratcheted up the pressure on Russian officials to give candid answers.

Russia's opposition politician Ilya Ponomaryov and opposition television host at the Valdai Discussion Club. Photo: RIA Novosti / Anton Denosov

The tenth annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Russia has come and gone. Originally a forum for a small number of Western experts to debate among themselves and interact with top Russian officials, this year’s meeting of the Valdai Club included more than 200 experts from around the globe. This new, bigger Valdai seems aimed at addressing some of the persistent criticisms leveled at past gatherings: that Valdai is too closed and too divorced from the realities of Russian politics.          

One major difference this year was the participation of several members of Russia’s “non-systemic” opposition, including newly elected Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeny Roizman (who spoke on a panel about regional diversity) and television host/activist Kseniya Sobchak. According to organizers, Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksey Navalny was also invited but did not attend. The presence of leading opposition figures, especially at the culminating discussion with President Vladimir Putin, gave this year’s meeting an air of openness and unpredictability lacking in the past.

So, too, did the fact that the meeting with Putin was open to the press and broadcast on Russian television. For the first time, ordinary Russians got to see Putin face off with his critics, both domestic and foreign. While polite, some of the criticism was pointed. Former German Defense Minister Völker Rühe departed from the moderator’s script, instead emphasizing directly to Putin the need for Russia to open up its political system to a new generation. Opposition activist Vladimir Ryzhkov asked Putin whether he would consider amnesty for protestors jailed following the May 2012 demonstrations on Bolotnaya Square — something Putin said he “did not exclude.”          

This greater openness represents a calculated gamble by the Kremlin, part of which seems like a new strategy of giving the opposition a safety valve (witness the relatively free mayoral elections in Moscow and Yekaterinburg) rather than relying solely on repression. With Putin’s return to the presidency secured and the protest movement of 2011-12 on the wane, the Kremlin has reason to feel more confident now, even if the systemic challenges posed by a growing middle class and a stagnating economy still loom.

At the same time, opening up the conference helps shift the narrative in the West — about Valdai and about Russia itself. Coverage of this year’s Valdai has tended to focus on the increased openness, rather than on the substantive discussion of Russian identity that provided the main theme. From the Kremlin’s perspective, that is no doubt a positive development, since much of what Putin said in his prepared remarks will grate on Western audiences.

Discussing his own view of Russian identity, Putin criticized the West for abandoning its Christian roots, and “placing on the same level families with many children and single-sex partnerships, belief in God and belief in Satan.” This cultural relativity, according to Putin, is “a direct path to degradation and primitivization, to a deep demographic and ethical crisis.”

Many Western experts have been, and remain, critical of the entire Valdai Club endeavor. They argue that Valdai aims at co-opting Western analysts and political figures, reducing them to supplicants for the Kremlin’s favor and lending international respectability to Putin’s rule. For that reason, many top U.S. and European figures have long refused to come.

Of course, these critics have a point. While it always has been a two-way exchange of views, the main point of Valdai remains to shape foreign coverage of Russia to the Kremlin’s advantage. Even the decision to open Valdai up to the opposition helps reinforce a narrative of greater openness that the Kremlin is trying to craft both at home and abroad.

Most of the Western participants are smart enough to understand the game, though proximity to power creates ethical dilemmas for journalists and analysts in any country, especially one where access to top officials is as restricted as in Russia.           

Whatever the qualms, they — we — still come precisely because of the access to top officials Valdai provides, a group that this year included among others Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Dagestan Governor Ramazan Abdulatipov, and Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergey Ivanov, in addition to Putin. Moreover, since this access is not one-on-one, but in front of a group, the officials face greater pressure to at least feign candidness, and to actually answer difficult questions.

The presence of the opposition and the television cameras this year ratcheted that pressure even higher. In a country where officials rarely even have to face unscripted questions, Valdai provides a rare, if highly limited, moment of accountability. All the better then that Russians themselves had an opportunity to demand that accountability this year.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.