If you can't beat them, copy them

Monday, 14. September 2009     0 comment(s)
Sinikukka Saari
Senior Research Fellow - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

Russia has had an uneasy relationship with the western democracy promotion initiatives already for years. Russian authorities do not consider western assistance to build functioning civil society to be in the Russian interests in the least. Instead, the Russian NGOs receiving foreign funding are often considered 'fifth columnists' aiming to weaken the Russian state. Many recall headline-grabbing incidents such as Putin's growling about Russian NGOs as 'jackals begging in front of foreign embassies' in late 2007, the 2008 attack against the European University in St. Petersburg after the university had received EU funding for a project on election monitoring, and the espionage accusations made against the seemingly benign British Council in early last year.

However, this is only one side of Russia's soft power strategy. Simultaneously with criticising foreign actors for funding NGOs and cultural activities in Russia, Russia has stepped up its own activities abroad.

Last year Russia set up the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation that opened branches in Paris and in New York. According to Foreign Minister Lavrov, the idea behind the Institute is to 'intensify debate of the general public, NGOs and experts about the ways of organizing the electoral process, electoral monitoring, to discuss the situation with national minorities and migrants, rights of children and youth, and freedom of speech'. In 2007 Putin established the Russian World – Russkiy mir Foundation. The foundation seems to be a Russian version of British Council concept. It finances Russia-related NGOs abroad and aims at protecting Russian language and strengthening the ties between Russia and Russian communities abroad. Another Russian soft power initiative is the Valdai Club that has met once a year since 2004. This Russian-sponsored 2-day event brings together some 50 foreign and Russian experts to share their thoughts and meet Russian high-level political figures. The club convened last week in Yakutsk under the theme 'Russia and the West: Back to the Future'.

One can predict uneven success to the Russian soft power initiatives in the West. The Valdai Club has been a relative success: the Western experts have been interested in hearing the Russian side of the story and, of course, flattered by the high-level attention and Russian hospitality. The Russkiy mir foundation could also have some success if it engages mainly in cultural activities and refrains from too pushy sponsoring of the Russian minorities abroad. However, the message of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation is likely to fell on deaf ears in the West. The idea of exposing the shortcomings of western system and promoting the Russian version of democracy seems too Soviet to be taken seriously. This initiative is based on simplistic zero-sum logic and therefore unlikely to fly. Soft power is, after all, about the ability to attract – and not about who is shouting the loudest.

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