I just finished a series of interviews and focus groups with young Russian professionals about Russia’s current foreign policies. The research was commissioned by the Gorchakov and the “Nasledie Evrazii” Foundations. The respondents were mostly graduates of international relations programs with practical international experiences in business, education, journalism, public service, and academia. The overall conclusion seems to be crystal clear: the rising generation of Russian foreign policy experts, especially outside Moscow, is increasingly skeptical about the key premises of Russian diplomacy and see more failures than achievements in Russia’s relations with its closest partners, including the EU and neighboring states.
Firstly, young Russian professionals – about 30 of them were interviewed – are markedly doubtful that the post-Soviet region is indeed the key priority for Russian diplomacy. Moscow’s policies in the CIS were characterized as “neo-imperial”, “irresponsible”, or “bringing no practical dividends for the population” (the later statement was related to Russia’s “de-facto occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia”), but definitely not as cooperative. Many respondents deem that the August 2008 war with Georgia was one of the major diplomatic failures of Russia, and expect the restoration of bilateral relations after the Saakashvili tenure. In the meantime, the countries seen as genuinely important for Russia are in the West, above all the EU and United States. Most of them portrayed Russia as a de-ideologized “corporate state,” which comprehends its benefits from cooperation with the West, yet this pragmatism is too often interrupted by nationalistic rhetoric and (mostly symbolic) attempts to challenge Europe and/or America. Sometimes, as a couple of experts presumed, the perceptional disconnections with the West are unintended effects of Russia’s adherence to obsolete communicative instruments and foreign policy vocabulary which are hardly compatible with those practiced by its Western interlocutors.
Secondly, none of the respondents believed in Russia’s “civilizational” mission, while some identified even certain dangers in a widely spread messianic rhetoric. This skepticism can be explained by the growing mistrust toward the state and the Russian Orthodox Church as the two sources of civilizational discourse in Russia. Some of the young experts acknowledged that the self-ascribed role of a “bridge between West and East” is neither recognized nor accepted by other nations. In an ironic way, the focus group participants assumed that perhaps Russia’s “mission” in the world is to expel the best minds out of the country and thus contribute to the cultural and technological development of the West. Instead of futile talks about “civilizational mission” most of the interviewees were open to a different concept – that of “soft power” which Russia potentially has due to its rich historical heritage and dynamic cultural life (music, cinema, arts, literature, etc.). Yet, unfortunately, neither the state nor the Russian corporate business is interested in promoting these “immaterial attractors” to the Western world. The “Russkii Mir” Foundation’s exclusive focus on Russian-speaking communities abroad is obviously insufficient.
Thirdly, the young Russian international relations specialists do not seem to believe that their country is rising from the knees. Russia’s foreign policy is typically characterized as lacking in priorities, erratic, circumstantial, mostly reactive, and short of constructive ideas – as illustrated, for instance, by the Russian position in the UN debate on Syria, which was widely perceived by the Western public as Russia being in solidarity with a tyrant. Consequently, the Kremlin’s resistance to the West is mostly symbolic and rhetorical, and lacks a due strategy. The Russian Foreign Ministry is largely described as an institution that is clan-like, stiff, inert, highly conservative, insensitive to new ideas, and reproducing the Soviet-style communicative practices that only alienate Russia from the West (it seems illustrative that none of the IR graduates considers pursuing a diplomatic career due to insufficient professional and financial incentives, as well as the discouraging bureaucratic environment). Correspondingly, most of the respondents claimed that the widely spread negative perceptions of Russia in the West are largely substantiated. Russia lacks new messages to the West and therefore is very weak in a global information milieu.
Fourthly, young Russian experts are far from adapting the rhetoric of sovereignty. In its stead, they prefer enjoying the benefits of globalization and taking advantages – both personal and professional – of plugging into trans-national exchanges and communication flows. Yet they deplore en masse that almost all cross-border projects are financed by their Western partners and colleagues, while their own state – obviously not short of money! – stays completely aloof and even hinders the development of grass-roots public or cultural diplomacy by pressurizing foreign non-governmental institutions and artificially creating negative images of the West. Fifthly, almost all of the young people participating in the interviews were certain that Russia desperately needs to find new forms of influence in the world, different from military might and energy supplies. They indicated that military issues are gradually decreasing in importance, while the role of soft power and economic innovation, on the contrary, is on the rise. Yet both Russia’s ideational and normative appeals and its technological modernization prospects are under serious questions.
Against this backdrop, it is very indicative that most of the respondents saw the sources of major threats to Russian security inside the country itself. They mentioned poor environmental protection, matters of information security, ineffectiveness of police in combating crime and terrorism, narcotics, degrading technological infrastructure (from housing to atomic stations), and so forth. Some of the interviewees admitted that the external environment is “mild” for Russia in the sense that none of the major powers is eager to take advantage of Russia’s obvious internal weaknessess. By the same token, references to “NATO tanks allegedly ready to invade Russia” were put in a clearly ironic context. Perhaps, the only noteworthy external threat that was touched upon was China as a source of mass-scale – and mostly informal – migration and possible creeping expansion into the Russian Far East and Siberia. For most speakers, China is associated with either threats or indifference to Russia, which – again – contradicts the official policy discourse of Moscow. As we see, there is a huge semantic gap between the Kremlin’s triumphalist narrative of Russia in the world, and the opinions of young urban professionals who are deeply critical of their country’s international profile. The bad news is that most of them do not expect any meaningful improvements in Russia’s conduct in the future. But the good news is that at least some of them still believe that the society itself – without the state’s guidance or supervision – is capable of bridging cultural and communicative gaps with neighboring countries and, by doing this, of reinvigorating Russia’s European identity.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.