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URI Professor meets with Vladimir Putin, other world leaders

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KINGSTON, R.I., Sept. 23, 2013 -- Vladimir Putin is "on top of his game.'' Russia helped avert a war by cutting a deal over Syrian's use of chemical weapons. And post-Soviet youth are striving for economic and political power.

Those topics and more came up during a week-long conference in Russia attended by University of Rhode Island Political Science Professor Nicolai N. Petro, as well as Putin and other world leaders.

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What made the annual gathering unusual this year is that Putin answered questions live from politicians and journalists for nearly three hours after a speech in which he touted Russia's global status.

America's perceived diminishing role as a superpower, Russia's treatment of gays and lesbians, and Vladimir Putin's exception to the United States' "exceptionalism'' were also talked about during the meeting, from Sept. 16 through 20 in the Novgorod Region in northwestern Russia.

A scholar of Russian politics and culture, Petro is living in Odessa, Ukraine, for a year on a Fulbright grant researching the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is the second time the 55-year-old Kingston resident has been invited to the gathering, called the Valdai Discussion Club.

In a Q&A with URI, Petro talked about his impressions of the Russian president, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons to kill his own people, and whether Putin is too "macho.''

Tell us about the conference? Who was there and what was the purpose of it?

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Valdai Discussion Club, created in 2004 by several prominent western Russian specialists and journalists to develop a dialogue with their counterparts in Russia and as an opportunity for both to discuss matters of common interest with Russian political leaders.

Only about 30 people attended the first meeting. More than 200 -- leading foreign leaders, academics, policy analysts, and journalists -- attended this year's meeting. Every year the president of Russia, senior government officials, political leaders of major political parties, and members of the opposition give talks at the gathering.

For the first time this year, President Putin's speech was televised live, along with a question-and-answer session with him that lasted about three hours. Each year a theme is chosen, and this year's meeting was devoted to "Russia's Diversity for the Modern World." I was also invited to the conference in 2007.

What were your impressions of Putin?

Putin is still very much on top of his game. It is exceptional for any world leader to spend so much time answering questions, particularly ones that are not scripted. In this case, his speech was followed by responses from former French Foreign Minister Francois Fillon, former German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe, former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, and Dimitri Simes, the president of the Center for the National Interests and publisher of the foreign-policy journal The National Interest.

There were many questions from the floor. I found it particularly noteworthy that Putin, in a live broadcast, took questions from three members of the political opposition -- Vladimir Ryzhkov, Xenia Sobchak, and Ilya Ponomarev -- all of whom are well-known critics of his policies.

Did he say anything about the op-ed piece in The New York Times that took exception to America's so-called "exceptionalism?"

He did. He was asked to explain how the article came about. He told the audience that it had been his idea to write something that might have an impact on the American public debate on Syria. After drafting the piece and editing it, his advisors told him to wait until after President Obama's speech to the nation, in case there was anything in the speech that should be addressed.

It was only after Obama's speech, in which he claimed that America's willingness to act is "what makes us exceptional ... let us never lose sight of that essential truth," that Putin added a final paragraph to his original remarks, in which he said that "it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional."

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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