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from issue no. 12 - 2006

The World Public Forum and the dialogue of civilizations

The “global monologue” is about to end

Behind the ambitious initiative of the World Public Forum there is the concrete attempt by Moscow to regain a voice in setting the world agenda. With an excellent chance. Meeting with Vladimir Yakunin

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

«Someone at the end of the ’eighties predicted that history had reached the end of the line, with a gilded finale, and that a triumphant civilization of human values had imposed itself. But already then they outlined the costs of this victory, that is the backing for a necessary world disorder, given that there were cultures that would not lend themselves to such a triumph. Now, civilization is an unavoidable factor in political discussion, and must not be used negatively, in a conflictual scheme, especially in a historic perspective. Our intellectual and political efforts today aim to go in an entirely different direction from those who delight in the end of history and the clash of entire peoples». Thus Vladimir Ivanovich Yakunin president of the World Public Forum, tells us. Set up in Moscow in 2002 with the support of the Russian government, the Forum, through international conferences at which exponents of civic and religious society and of the governments of the whole world participate, aims at promoting peace and international security.
The prophets of the end of history, to whom Yakunin refers, are those thinkers who had as their manifesto the celebrated 1989 study by the American Francis Fukuyama The end of the history?, which became in 1992 the book The end of history and the last man, on the definitive triumph of the ideal of western democracy, and who would then – in the wake of the notion of the clash of civilizations set out by Huntington – come together in the movement today commonly called neoconservative. What the neocons have so far achieved in foreign politics is known: the tragedy of Iraq.
But to get a better idea of Yakunin’s activism on the international stage a second premise is needed. In Russia there are people who have not forgotten that before 11 September realism in foreign politics was an axiom still widely shared and that even in the months following the collapse of the Twin Towers there was a certain degree of understanding in the looks exchanged between Washington and Moscow. It was no accident that Putin was among the first to call Bush on 11 September, offering wide and welcome collaboration. It was instead at the line afterwards assumed by Moscow – influenced by the American decision of unleashing the war in Iraq with a “coalition of the willing” – that some Washington circles pointed and point the finger. They accuse the Russian president in fact of having abandoned the Yeltsin “ethic” and of wanting to strengthen the post-Soviet State, so as to regain the lost space. In short, to resurrect Russia again as a great power.
That said, let us try to see who Vladimir Ivanovich Yakunin is. A diplomatic and government career covering more than twenty years has led him today to preside over the Russian Railroads, «the longest in the world», he points out. He graduated in chemistry at Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) and there he also won the lasting respect and friendship of the man who leads the Russian Federation today, another Vladimir: Putin. Where this privileged relation might still lead Yakunin is the real bet that more than a few people in Moscow are attentively appraising. As well as being awarded the highest honor that the Patriarch Alexius II can grant a layman, and belonging to the top ranks of the “Center of National Glory” and the Foundation dedicated to the apostle Andrew, in 2002 Yakunin set up a powerful independent non-government organization, namely the World Public Forum. Which, among other things, openly presents itself as the Russian think tank providing support at G8 meetings, with the avowed goal of moving from «global monologue to global dialogue» in international politics. «Only in this way will it be possible to get out of the impasse in which» - Yakunin suggests not without irony - «western analysts recriminate about Islamic totalitarianism, while their oriental colleagues are on the contrary worried precisely about totalitarian free enterprise».
Vladimir Yakunin with the Patriarch of Moscow Alexis II in the cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow

Vladimir Yakunin with the Patriarch of Moscow Alexis II in the cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow

The catchword that dominates all the world gatherings of the Forum is “Dialogue of civilization” and it is the conceptual and political tool through which, along with the hundreds of known figures who always participate, Yakunin is attempting to advance original views. Views such as these: «There are seeds of globalization that can be found in the ’seventies’, when on the one hand there was the spiritual revolution in Iran, and on the other the invasion of Afghanistan, if we want to limit ourselves to the East. Already then an elite laid claim to global leadership, declaring themselves champions of a civilization of values shared by the human race, but in fact making unilateral choices. But objectively they were – and are today – only one part of the world’s elite». According to Yakunin, this decision-making minority commits real and true mistakes «when its desire to resolve political contradictions, though reasonable, is guided by pre-established principles, even when human rights are flaunted and they claim to be champions of democracy». An example? «The tragedy of Yugoslavia and of Kosovo teaches us that if proper respect is not given to the identity of a people then only conflict can come of it». In terms of the Middle East Yakunin observes: «The war in Lebanon unexpectedly accelerated the consolidation of processes already present in the Ummah, the great community of Muslim believers. In the United States they immediately understood that on the basis of a shared civilization a common platform of foreign policy was taking on strength in the Arab countries, and in Washington there were people who immediately renewed the call to Europe and America for a “common Atlantic strategy”, as an answer to the challenges to the West. I call that a “negative unification”, however, because at bottom it is an invitation to be friends against someome else. And the paradigm of civilization should never be used to back such aims. Because the next step, manipulative and accusatory, is that of likening Hezbollah to al-Qaeda».
Positive experiences of the “dialogue of civilizations” exist instead. Yakunin resumes: «We were all happy to listen to the “Declaration of Amman” in 2004, when the King of Jordan, who was also an awards guest at our Forum, offered an interpretation of the contemporary Islamic tradition according to which all human violence goes against Islam, and this text was signed by Moslem authorities of all denominations…». All of this obviously has something to say about the «events of 2006, such as the crisis that erupted because of the cartoons against Muhammed and the lecture by the Catholic Pontiff in Regensburg». Yakunin continues: «Up until a little while ago politics was able to manage international relations and the civilization factor was hidden in the depth of the events and never emerged. Today that encapsulation is over, and the term has resurfaced. And it will be part of the geopolitical debate for a long time».
Cardinal Etchegaray, Metropolitan Kyrill, the Grand Mufti and the Chief Rabbi of the Russian Federation during the summit for interreligious dialogue hosted by the Orthodox Patriarchate, Moscow, July 2006

Cardinal Etchegaray, Metropolitan Kyrill, the Grand Mufti and the Chief Rabbi of the Russian Federation during the summit for interreligious dialogue hosted by the Orthodox Patriarchate, Moscow, July 2006

On the island of Rhodes, in Greece, its annual meeting-place, the World Public Forum attracted around five hundred participants to its last meeting in 2006, (from 27 September to October 1), including experts in international politics, academics, religious exponents and civic leaders. It is worth remembering that all things considered Yakunin has done nothing more than give practical realization to a resolution of the UN General Assembly of 2001, a year that, without 11 September, would only have been the “Year of the dialogue of civilizations”, according to the request made at the time by the president of Iran, Khatami. Obviously Yakunin asserts with pride that, «though the Forum is an international event, it is based entirely on the experience of dialogue typical of Russian thinking, and ongoing in multiethnic and multireligious Russian society. The subjects of our debates have, then, always become elements in political practice».
Presenting the Russian readers of the Rossijskaya Gazeta with a report on the latest edition of the Forum, Yakunin wrote that for those at present trying to encourage a multipolar system in international relations there are, honestly, «more questions than answers», but that those who hastening answers, above all in this controversial time of ours, are making gestures «without sense». Russian patience, the patience of a millennial civilization returning with a full file to the negotiating table, will help everyone to find equilibrium again. To see the extent of agreement between the World Public Forum and the Kremlin’s strategic choices, it’s enough to quote what president Putin wrote in the margin of the Europe-Russia summit of 24 November last, when the EU was invited «not to impose a standard of civilization»...
A final observation. At meetings of the Forum the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church are visibly in the majority among the religious leaders participating. Proof that the initiative is more than supported by the Patriarchate. Everyone also noted that at the celebrations of the Orthodox Easter 2006 with Alexius II, the man behind President Putin, on live television, was Vladimir Yakunin himself. And this is his conclusion: «With the members of the World Public Forum we have adopted the rule of always seeking what enables peaceful coexistence among differences. Each civilization has its own vision of reality. The world itself expresses and allows diversity, and it is not permitted to sacrifice the multiplicity wanted by the Creator. And I hope that this remains true, for ever».

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