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10 Sep, 2008 22:17

Kremlin watchers to examine Caucasian conflict

Political experts and journalists from all over the world have gathered in Russia’s southern city of Rostov-on-Don for a series of meetings aimed at providing them with a better understanding of the country. On Thursday, the Valdai Discussion Club will fo

They will discuss the issue with the presidents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as get some of their questions answered at a traditional meeting with Vladimir Putin.

The Valdai Club may look like an academics’ jamboree, but the ideas discussed here decisively influence how the world sees this country. The theme this year is a supposed global geopolitical revolution and Russia’s role in it.

Professor Michael Stuermer, Die Welt Chief Correspondent said:

“If you describe revolution as a slow-moving process, tectonic plates shifting, then this is a revolution. And the key terms are globalisation, resurgence of Russia, overstretch of the United States, weakness of the European Union.”

Thousands of U.S. troops are still committed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The EU has been unable to agree on its new constitution, and last week’s Russia summit exposed the divisions between its new and old members.

And while western economies stutter, Russia, together with China and India, look to posit another year of strong growth.

Russia’s territory, history and nuclear status only add to Moscow’s burgeoning power. But, rather than setting the rules, here at least, Russia often found itself on the defensive.

Once again, South Ossetia and Abkhazia became the focus. When Georgia invaded its breakaway republic of South Ossetia last month, Russia responded by sending in its military.

There was some support for Russia’s initial actions, but Moscow came under fire for the recognition of the two territories as independent countries immediately afterwards. Only Nicaragua has followed its lead, with Belarus and Venezuela giving their endorsement.

Professor Timothy Colton from Harvard University says, “It is not clear that it was in Russia’s interest”.

“Might have been better to try and wait and try and bargain concessions on a variety of issues. Instead, now Russia has done it, and of course, given Russia’s size and its stubbornness, it’s not likely it is going to change its mind any time soon,” he says.

Dr. Ariel Cohen from The Heritage Foundation says he doesn’t see major powers such as China , India, let alone Western Europe and the United States, recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia, “and it is going to be a major irritant in the relationship”.
In the longer term, President Dmitry Medvedev recently tried to give a blueprint for Russia’s foreign policy by outlining its five founding principles. Amongst them, a desire to see a “multi-polar world” and Russia’s right to retain close ties with regions where it has “privileged interests”

However, not everyone is convinced that Russia has clear international objectives.

Dr. Bobo Lo, Centre for European Reform says: “At the moment there is a perception of Russia as a spoiler. Certainly more influential than it was, more confident than it was, but not yet constructive.”

Despite the often strident rhetoric, this forum is one of a seemingly declining number of opportunities for Russia and the West to engage in genuine dialogue. Whether the politicians are listening, is another matter.