Forum that reflects Russian thinking counters western consensus in five-star island retreat.
by: Neil Buckley in Rhodes.
For an event that has been portrayed as a Kremlin propaganda-fest and a hotbed of Russian nationalists, the Rhodes Forum looks surprisingly like any other international conference.
From the low white armchairs and blue backdrop on the main stage to the breakout sessions on pressing issues, Rhodes does a good impression of a mini-Davos.
The 300 thinktankers, businessmen and politicos who gathered at a five-star resort on the Greek island last weekend for this year’s forum engaged in the hand-wringing over the many crises — mass migration, Islamist terrorism and rising inequality — facing the world.
One thing that seems to unite a good chunk of the participants, however, is a belief that those problems can all somehow be blamed on US and EU policies. By coincidence or not, that fits neatly with the Kremlin narrative.
“I truly believe that the current model where a few countries decide on the rules for the rest of the world is simply wrong,” said Vladimir Yakunin, Rhodes’ founder and close associate of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Mr Yakunin added that even Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, had recently declared the US-imposed “neoliberal consensus” to be dead — something the Rhodes conference has mooted for years.
Now in its 14th year, the forum — properly known as the Dialogue of Civilisations — has come under greater scrutiny since Russia’s breach with the west over Ukraine in 2014. Western capitals have awoken to Moscow’s slick use of propaganda — from state-funded broadcasters such as RT to internet trolls and front organisations — to promote an alternative worldview.
This year’s forum seemed set to be a particular coup for its organisers: Two Eurosceptic EU heads of government — Slovak premier Robert Fico and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban — were signed up to speak.
Both men pulled out on the eve of the forum, but the event still featured Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former IMF chief, and the anti-migrant, Eurosceptic current and former Czech presidents, Milos Zeman and Václav Klaus.
In an interview with the FT, Mr Yakunin said his aim with Rhodes was to feature a diversity of opinion. Sidestepping a question about whether he discussed the forum with Mr Putin, he said it was wrong for any “non-mainstream” opinion “to be hushed up because people think it is part of an exercise in ‘soft power’ by some particular country”.
Whether the event is a Kremlin-backed exercise or Mr Yakunin’s personal initiative has become a bigger talking point since the opening in June of a Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute in Berlin, and plans for a string of other global offices to extend its reach.
Mr Yakunin is known for his conservative views. He also runs the Centre for the National Glory of Russia, an organisation that promotes Russian Orthodox values, and, with his wife Natalia, the St Andrew the First-Called Foundation, which aims to “study and preserve the Russian national legacy”.
Mr Yakunin was sanctioned by the US — but not the EU — as a “close confidant” of Mr Putin after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.
However, Kremlinologists suggest he may no longer be so close after Mr Putin removed him as railways boss in 2015. Some Moscow media claim the president was unhappy that Mr Yakunin’s son, a London-based investment manager, had taken UK citizenship; others linked it to his management of the railways. Mr Yakunin has declined to comment.
The Dialogue of Civilisations activities are financed, Mr Yakunin says, via a Swiss-registered foundation with “substantial” funding from Ruben Vardanian, the Russian former investment bank owner, as well as Greek foundations and other donors.
With an American senior editor and multicultural staff, the think-tank will conduct research on six themes ranging from the “economics of post-modernity” to “civilisations against the threat of social barbarism”. One Rhodes participant suggested its aim was to challenge the dominance of “Anglo-Saxon” think-tanks.
The forum does regularly provide platforms for views chiming with Moscow’s.
Mr Zeman, who has spoken at Rhodes nine times, in 2014 dismissed the Ukraine crisis as a bout of “flu” and lambasted sanctions against Russia. This weekend he again deemed sanctions against Russia a “lose-lose strategy” and called for newly arrived economic migrants to be deported from Europe.
Mr Klaus, asked by the FT about the problems facing the EU, declared acidly: “The European Union is the crisis.”
Alongside Mr Klaus, however, the supervisory board includes Alfred Gusenbauer, the pro-EU former Austrian chancellor, and Walter Schwimmer, a former secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the human rights body.
Mr Gusenbauer says calling the Rhodes Forum a Kremlin propaganda effort is as ridiculous as suggesting it is CIA-sponsored. “If it was a [Russian] propaganda exercise it would be much better prepared,” he quips.
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