When I was invited to attend the Yalta European Strategy conference in Yalta I jumped at the chance, not for the conference – I admit I had never heard about it – but, as a keen amateur of 20th Century history, I was excited about Yalta itself. I wanted to see the place where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin sat down and carved up post-World War and post-Third Reich Europe between the Allied victors of the war.
While the ‘strategy’ of the leaders back in 1945 (certainly in Roosevelt and Churchill’s case) was made to look highly questionable by the decades that followed, European strategy is what the modern-day Yalta conference is all about: a chance for prominent leaders of industry and politics to discuss the challenges that lie ahead for Ukraine, eastern Europe and the world as a whole.
Research into past editions of the Yalta European Strategy conference, or Yalta Annual Meeting, quickly taught me that its guests are of A-list calibre and have included the likes of Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Shimon Peres and Gerhard Shroeder: people who have to some extent shaped the way the world is. The 2012 list is no different, with Gordon Brown, Condoleezza Rice, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Dominique Strauss-Kahn among many other prominent participants.
The whole operation is extremely well organised. Travel and hotel arrangements were taken care of by localised PR companies, and guests, once registered, swiftly received the itinerary. Any hopes I had of some relaxing downtime in the seaside resort were dashed by the almost military precision of the timetable. Nothing is left to chance. But then again, if you have distinguished guests, you can’t exactly keep them waiting.
The YES conference is the brainchild of Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Pinchuk. Among the first acquaintances I made at the lavish welcome reception on the eve of the event were beneficiaries of Pinchuk’s foundation, Ukraine’s brightest young minds who are awarded student scholarships for their entrepreneurial vision. They told me of the problems facing young Ukrainians, the lack of innovation compared to countries further west. As we spoke, and purely by coincidence, we were joined by Alec Ross, the Senior Advisor on Innovation to the current US government. The students asked Ross what he did for a living before a quick exercise in name-dropping (“my friend Mark Zuckerberg”) led them quickly to understand that the weekend was going to be a good one for swapping business cards.
The EU’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, spoke quite directly when, addressing the entire audience, he said of Ukraine’s prospects of Union membership: “We want to move forward with Ukraine but how can we when little action has been taken to redress the effects of selective justice in the cases of Mrs Tymoshenko, Mr Lutsenko and others?”
The warmth of the hospitality (and the supply of alcohol) made for a late night at the welcome dinner despite an early start the following day. Tired and jet-lagged journalists were bussed to the splendid Livadia Palace, where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin did their famous deal.
First up after Pinchuk’s opening welcome remarks were the speeches of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish Prime Minister got proceedings off to a noteworthy start with strong words condemning recent violence against Western diplomats in Egypt and Libya. He also evoked what he called the “inevitable end” of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The second session dealt with the global economy and, as one might expect, didn’t give cause for much cheer. Former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin predicted that Europe’s economy will stagnate, if it’s lucky. Don’t expect things to get much better in 2013, he added. At this point I quickly helped myself to the free coffee and biscuits in case the gloomy forecast prompted organisers to start charging me for them. Ex-IMF chief Strauss-Kahn then joined in by agreeing with Kudrin. He proposed a plan to make things better that involves Germany doing more in the way of financial help for it’s poorer, debt-stricken European neighbours. He argued that it’s in Germany’s own best interests but questioned whether there is the political will in Berlin to do just that.
The highlight, for me in any case, came in the following session on Global Order and Security, led by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She spoke of the dangers of “ungoverned spaces” that became apparent after 9/11, and had a message for Europe, which she described as a “North Star” to which the world often looks for guidance. “Europeans are often not respectful enough about how much Europe matters,” she said. As a European, I was flattered and had to agree. She then ruled herself out of ever running for political office, claiming “I love policy but I don’t love politics.” I thought to myself that it’s a shame that so many people in political office do enjoy politics.
We then went to what was billed as a ‘US election working lunch’ at which William Daley (Democrat, Obama’s former chief of staff) and Newt Gingrich (Republican, Speaker of the House of Representatives) championed the cause of Obama and Mitt Romney respectively. Both agreed that if Romney is to stand a chance of beating Obama in November’s election he needs to clearly state his case for how to improve the economy, something he has so far failed to do effectively. As someone who’s become a bit sick of the bitter and ugly negative campaigning in the US election, I found it refreshing to be reminded that Americans can have different political views and still discuss them in an eloquent and dignified way. The lunch by the way was lovely. And free. It almost made me forget about the morning’s message that the world economy is teetering on the brink.
After lunch came a session on the future of innovation, with guests Yuri Milner and Salman Khan via video link from Silicon Valley and others including Alec Ross and Eric Lander in the conference room. The economy might be in a mess but at least advances in technology give us all cause for optimism. Lander spoke about innovation leading the fight against deadly diseases, Khan about the huge potential benefits to education, Milner about the effect on e-commerce and Ross about how government needs to stand aside and let the world’s innovative minds do their work in peace.
The only glitch in the day’s proceedings was the wi-fi connection at the venue, which was slow at times. This meant I had to come back to the hotel to send this copy and had to miss the last session, on the Future of the Market Economy. But it doesn’t matter too much because I can see the videos on the YES website, just as you can. And I suggest you do, because it is highly interesting. Coming up on Day 2: the Future of Europe, Energy and it’s uniting/dividing effect on Europe, the Future of Russia, as well as Ukraine and the Tymoshenko case, a controversial topic to close the 2012 conference.
Hope to see you there!