Russia is ready to move forward both economically and politically – but on its own terms, and according to its own interests, priorities and values.

Heinz Fischer, ex-President of Austria, speaks at the Plenary Session during 13th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi. Photo: RIA Novosti

The political message of this year’s Valdai forum was one of confidence and state-initiated reform. Leading members of Russia’s political class attending the event included President Vladimir Putin, Head of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova, and several key representatives of the executive and legislative branches of state power. While discussing different dimensions of Russia’s development, each of them sought to stress that the country was stable and ready to move forward.  

On the economic front, a member of the Russian government argued that Russia has now fully adjusted to the volatile international markets and is ready to operate under Western sanctions. Indeed, the overall Russian economy has benefited from sanctions. In particular, agriculture, food industry, and chemicals became important sources of overall growth. The economy’s macro indicators are positive. It is now considerably less dependent on the West and is ready to progress on the basis of developing further relations with China and other non-Western nations.

Another official described preparations for the country’s strategic change in the direction of comprehensive economic, social and political reform. The new strategy will proceed from the need to continue the nation’s integration with the global economy, while improving the quality of state governance and developing Russia’s comparative advantages in the technological sector and human capital.

With hundreds of experts involved, the strategy is to be completed by Spring 2017 and then be given full consideration by President Putin. Along with ideas expressed by members of the Stolypin Club, the newly prepared economic strategy is a critically important source of new thinking by the Kremlin. [The Stolypin Club, headed by Sergei Glazyev and Andrei Klepach, is one of the two competing groups within Russia that is mapping out a future economic policy for the nation – Editor’s note] Having left behind the energy-based model for growth, the Kremlin is now in search for a new model of development and is likely to be attentive to various recommendations for reform.

In terms of the political system, other officials highlighted the system’s newly gained legitimacy on the basis of a greater openness as demonstrated by the recent elections to the State Duma. The extremely high level of support for Putin helped to elect a parliament with the overwhelming dominance of those advocating his favored course of state-controlled reform. On the forum’s sidelines, several experts speculated about the possibility of early presidential elections in Fall 2017 in order to expedite the implementation of reform.

In foreign policy and international relations, Putin and other officials continued to advance the message of Russia’s preparedness to work with the West on addressing common threats and challenges but not at the expense of Russia’s sovereignty and national interests. Some provided detailed answers to multiple questions from the audience about specifics of the country’s involvement abroad, while Putin outlined a broad vision of globalization for all, rather than some exclusive countries and population groups.

These policy makers indicated that the country’s interests demand standing firm for defending state sovereignty and fighting terrorism in the Middle East, implementing the Minsk agreements in Ukraine, and building a greater Eurasia in close cooperation with China and Central Asian nations.

It remains to be seen whether this vision of confidence and reform will get a chance to be implemented. Obstacles – both external and domestic – are formidable. Externally, the biggest unknown is how the new U.S. administration will deal with Russia. Depending on who arrives to the White House and whether Russia is viewed as predominantly a threat or a potential partner, the U.S. policy is bound to either encourage or complicate the nation’s reform efforts.

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Additional pressures and sanctions against the Russian economy are not likely to obtain the Kremlin’s cooperation, but may well push the country away from the state-designed reforms and toward a more interventionist foreign policy and militarization of the budget.

At home, the years of the West’s pressures and insensitivity to Russia’s interests have served to build powerful constituencies that are comfortable with Russia’s siege mentality and obsessed with the alleged American threat. Putin has heavily relied on these constituencies to consolidate his control following the Ukraine crisis and will now have to work against their instincts and preferences.

However difficult it might be to practically implement it, this vision of confident reform on the basis of Russia’s own priorities, values, and interests is worth serious attention. During the years that followed Western sanctions, the Kremlin demonstrated both the lack of desire to be isolated from the global economy and the power to defend its international status and interests.

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