Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Moscow Falling Short in Creating Effective Pro-Russian Lobbies in the West, Russian Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 18 – The three Russian government agencies responsible for promoting Russian “soft power” abroad generally focus not on the West but elsewhere, Moscow experts say; the Russian government is skeptical about people to people efforts; and as a result, Russia has been losing the soft power battle with the West.

            That vision of the situation is very different from what many in the West imagine, but an article on the Znak portal argues recent events lead to “the sad conclusion that Russia which is de facto in a new cold war with the West as before is far from mastering soft power, which would allow in strategic perspective to increase the number of Russia’s allies in the world arena.”

            Having briefly reviewed the activities of the three Russian government agencies in this area – the Russian Cooperation Agency, the Russian World Fund, and the Gorchakov Foundation – the portal asked three experts to evaluate Russian soft power (znak.com/2018-03-15/pochemu_pered_ugrozoy_novoy_holodnoy_voyny_rossiya_tak_i_ne_ovladela_instrumentami_myagkoy_sily).

            Aleksandr Baunov, a former Russian diplomat who now works at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says that “one must not consider the system of Russian soft power only through these three organizations.” The foreign ministry plays the key role via its embassies and trade representatives, and Russian media, and especially Russia Today, are more influential.

            Moreover, he suggests, one should “not underrate work with Russian diasporas in foreign countries.” Russians there are divided into “two camps,” those who “continue to love their country” and those “who ran from the hated motherland.”  Twenty years ago, the latter dominated the scene, now, Russian diasporas divide roughly 50-50 into these two camps.

            Yevgeny Minchenko, head of the International Institute of Political Expertise, says that “diasporas really are typically a serious element of lobbing, but in the case of the Russian ones, this isn’t happening” especially in major Western countries. In Britain, for example, ethnic Russians show “a very low degree of loyalty to their country.”

            Moreover, Russian officials downplay the role of such groups, preferring instead to focus on diplomatic contacts with the host country rather than on meeting with ethnic Russian diasporas.  That limits Moscow’s ability to build up a stable group that will serve as the best ambassadors of Russian soft power, he suggests.

            And Aleksey Potemkin, a Moscow political analyst, agrees. “We have a very state-focused political culture” that looks askance at non-official contacts. As a result, he says, “a large part of the money which is intended to promote Russian ‘soft power’ remains in the hands of government agencies or goes into economic programs to support international development.”

            In addition, he continues, “very often Russia cuts back on the intensity of work in the most difficult directions, for example, in relations with the US.”  For example, Moscow ended the Kremlin Fellows program even though it had been successful in winning friends for Russia who then obtained influential positions in the United States.

            Baunov agrees.  Often, he says, “the Kremlin is skeptical” about any such unofficial groups, especially given concerns at the center that supporting them will only bring charges that Moscow is interfering and make the situation for the Russian side even worse than it would otherwise be.

            That has left business contacts as the most important or at least most effective means of promoting Russian soft power, he says. Nonetheless, Minchenko says that “the establishment of an effective system of lobbying while difficult is possible” but only if Moscow changes its attitude toward soft power and comes to view it as something more than a special operation.

            And Potemkin insists that Russia needs a program of continuing contacts with those who are influential in foreign countries and especially in the West. That would allow Moscow to “achieve the necessary results,” implicitly suggesting that it is far from doing so at the present time.

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