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Washington Profile
September 14, 2005
Interview with David Johnson about the Valdai Conference and Meeting with Putin

What were your general impressions of the Valdai Conference?

Johnson: This was the second such conference I attended. I would say about 2/3rds of the participants had been there a year ago, and the others were new. There was a mixture of Westerners and Russians, maybe about 40-45 of each. This time, rather than meeting in a hotel, we had most of our activities on a cruise ship, a steamer. It went up the Moscow canal northwest to the Volga, and from there to the city of Tver. All of the meetings took place on the boat. We did a tour of the city and oblast of Tver and met the regions governor.

The impression was very good this time; rather than the speakers being entirely Russian, they mixed in some of the Westerners. This was in response to a request that was made last time: that the Western participants are given more of an opportunity to present their views. Obviously a lot of the discussion took place informally; I think thats probably even more productive in terms of exchanging views and learning things than the formal meetings, which often dont provide enough opportunity for discussion.

It was a very positive and useful experience. I think just about everyone who was there found that to be true. It was very good to meet and re-meet some prominent Russians of a variety of political points of view: Vladimir Ryzhkov and Irina Khakamada, who are probably among the most well-known liberal critics of Putin, were there. Some of the publicists who are considered close to the Russian government were there, such as Sergei Markov, Vyacheslav Nikonov and Vitaly Tretyakov.

When we came back to Moscow, we had the great opportunity to meet with President Putin, the defense minister Ivanov, and the foreign minister Lavrov. Surkov, a rather well-known ideologist and aide to Putin, also spoke to the group, with some opportunity for questions.

What about your impressions of President Putin?

Johnson: A year ago, unexpectedly, we had a chance to spend about 3 and hours with him at the country residence in the shadow of the terrorist events in Beslan- that was a remarkable experience. This time, the meeting was more formal and organized and took place within the Kremlin in the Catherine Hall, which is in the Senate building where Putin has his offices. And this time the meeting was a little less than 2 and hours. Putin was much more animated and energetic than he was last year, understandably.

Putin is an impressive person with enormous energy. He knows a lot about many subjects. I think in some way he is sensitive to the points of view of these foreigners, who he thanked for their long-term interest in Russia. All of the participants from the West were people who had a substantial and long-term interest in Russia, even the few journalists who were there, for the most part, were people who had been following Russia for many years.

My impression is that the Westerners were quite impressed with Putin. The big story that seemed to come out of the meeting was Putins very explicit statement that he would not be running for president again and that they would not be changing the constitution. And he did say this in very explicit terms. There was quite a bit of discussion about the fact that he was going to Germany in a few days and about the energy relationship between Russia and Western Europe, the US and the Far East.

How sincere do you think he was?

Johnson: I think he communicates with a great deal of sincerity. Of course, one can be skeptical of any politician. Politicians are often very good at talking to people and telling them what they want to hear. And some people think that Putins background in the KGB, where, if youre recruiting agents, you have a certain kind of facility in gaining confidence, may have helped him in his current career. But, in general, I think that those of us who had at least this modest chance to observe him and interact with him see him as basically sincere. And thats my personal view. In general, even people you disagree with usually say what they believe. Thats the impression Putin gave.

He was frank. The subject of Chechnya didnt come up so much this year as it did last year, of course. I remember being impressed last year when Putin was very critical of how the Russian government, both in the past and up to the present, had treated the Chechens. He spoke at some length in a critical way about that. Thats just one example of his capacity for frankness.

You have already been to two Valdai conferences, how do you think they influence the Russian image?

Johnson: I think thats very hard to judge. The Western participants are people who tend to be prominent in their countries. This is not as true, perhaps, in the American case. But I think the meetings with the leading German, French and British experts on Russia, where people are more interested and focused on Russia than Americans tend to be these days, have a greater impact. I dont think the organizers of the conference have an exaggerated notion about how much the image of Russia can be affected by these meetings. But Im sure they think its important to communicate with those people who do pay attention to Russia, who do provide intellectual commentary on Russia that is reflected in their local media.

What do you think their main incentive is to organize the meetings?

Johnson: I think its clear that a few years ago the Russian government decided that it should put more effort into trying to reach the West with information, analysis and, Im sure they hope, a more positive and balanced view of Russia. And this conference, which is basically funded by the Russian official news agency RIA Novosti, is one of those means.

The participants were impressed with the range of Russians who took part, with the fact that there was no particular heavy-handed ideological party line on display. I think the organizers of the conference do a very good job in organizing a Western-style, intellectually honest event. That in itself is impressive in how Russia has evolved.

Did this Valdai conference give you any ideas or feelings about where Russia is headed?

Johnson: Unfortunately I dont visit Russia as often as many of the other participants and my Russian language skills are considerably weaker that those of most of the Western participants. My impression from casual conversations with people is that people are impressed with progress, with economic progress. And not only in Moscow, where this is much more on display than elsewhere.

People who may be involved in business, who tend to prize political stability more than others, are particularly positive about what Putin has been doing. Others, who are more sensitive to the evolving political situation or human rights issues, tend to be more critical about what has been happening during the last year or two. But, in general, I would say the impression people have, based in part on this Valdai discussion but perhaps also on some traveling and experience in Russia, is that Russia is moving in a positive economic direction and that this, in some respects, lays the foundation for a more positive evolution of the political and social situation.