«Every December we hold debates»
Natalia Burlinova
  • Natalia Burlinova
    President and founder of PICREADI
  • «Every December we hold debates», says Natalia Burlinova, President of "Creative Diplomacy", in her interview to the Russian Humanitarian Mission.

    Center for Support and Development of Public Initiatives "Creative Diplomacy" maintains a dialogue between Russian and foreign experts and scholars of international relations and adopts practices of analogous organizations in its work. The range of activities of "Creative Diplomacy" is wide: expert analytics, educational courses, providing platforms for discussions. In her interview to the RHM, Natalia Burlinova has explained what the differences between public diplomacy and social diplomacy are, till what age a modern professional is considered young, why Meeting Russia is a unique program, and what other programs "Creative Diplomacy" works on.
Russian Humanitarian Mission: When and how was "Creative Diplomacy" started?

Natalia Burlinova: In 2010 postgraduate students of the Higher School of Economics joined together in a team aspiring to work in the public space of foreign politics. We wanted to make something extraordinary. It was not about any commercial activity. And we came up with a non-commercial idea: to establish a non-profit organization "Creative Diplomacy".

RHM: What is creative diplomacy? What is its difference from diplomacy in the conventional meaning of the word?

Natalia Burlinova: I often have to answer this question. We started "Creative Diplomacy" during Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, when modern words borrowed from other languages were fashionable. So, we decided that the pretty word "creative" matched well with "diplomacy". We also decided that our kind of diplomacy would not be the classic diplomacy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Instead, it would be implemented by people without official powers or professional duties, by people who would be able to develop a dialogue even when official contacts are problematic.

RHM: "Creative Diplomacy" then and now: are there any differences?

Natalia Burlinova:
Of course, there are. At first our aim was to support people who addressed us with interesting initiatives. For example, one of the first initiatives we supported was a Russian-Polish Forum: young Poles came to Russia, we held debates, argued, found common ground, which was very interesting. In the 2010s the demand for public initiatives and forums was high, and it was the period of improvement of the Russian-Polish relations, so we met the demand. We have always been adequate to reality. Today there is demand for analytics, so we focus on expertise in science and theory of public diplomacy and do analytical projects.
«We promote meaningful expert dialogue about Russia»
PICREADI presents an interview with Natalia Burlinova about the Meeting Russia program
RHM: One of the aims of "Creative Diplomacy" is promoting a positive image of Russia in the public and information space. How do you deal with it?

Natalia Burlinova:
Our target audience is young leaders, experts of international relations and foreign politics, journalists, etc. We develop dialogues to help mutual understanding. Our projects are often characterized as Soft Power – a popular term today. Soft Power as a theory was created by American political scientist Joseph Nye. But we prefer to call our activity "public diplomacy" and understand it as a system of organizations, bodies, programs, projects that collectively contribute to Soft Power. Public diplomacy promotes the positive image of a country, an unbiased perception of it. When explaining Soft Power, Joseph Nye suggested creating an appealing image by peaceful instruments: education, exchange programs, tourism and so on. We do that in our rather narrow line of cooperation between young leaders and experts. However, all that was the case before February 2022, because currently all efforts on creating a positive image of Russia in Europe and North America are in standstill. What is more, the U.S. government has imposed sanctions on "Creative Diplomacy".

RHM: "Creative Diplomacy" characterizes itself as a team of young professionals. But the organization is already 12 years old.

Natalia Burlinova: By international standards, people are considered young until 40 or even 45 years old. It is not quite so for Russia, but we refer the characteristic to the age of the people we work with, not to the staff of "Creative Diplomacy". And the people we work with are young by all standards.

RHM: How broad is the geography of "Creative Diplomacy"? Do you work with Europeans, or do your activities involve other directions, too?

Natalia Burlinova: Europe and the U.S. used to be our priorities. Now we have to reconsider the geography. We cooperate with Russian regions and are currently doing research of the regions' public diplomacy potentials. The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) is assisting us with the research. As for other directions, we are developing contacts with BRICS countries, South America and Africa.
Meeting Russia 2018
RHM: Tell us about Meeting Russia.

Natalia Burlinova: Meeting Russia is our flagship project. We adopted the practices of the Körber Foundation when devising it. And the Körber Foundation works intensively with young leaders (up to 40 years old and even older), selects them, invites them to Germany and arranges debating events for them. I used to participate in the events of the Körber Foundation and in the alumni network, but lately I have quit it because of my political views.

Meeting Russia is our Russian version of the German experience. We have invited young Western experts to participate in discussions of contemporary Russia and its foreign policy. Russian experts, diplomats and other officials have taken part in the discussions. Foreign participants have had opportunities to ask any questions, to debate, to visit governmental bodies. Meeting Russia is the only all-Russian public diplomacy project in the English language that has worked with the EU and U.S. I admit once again that we did not invent anything new – we used the foreign experience. The project has worked for four years and been very popular – which is why it has been included in the sanctions list. I view it as a kind of appreciation of the efficiency of our work. Now we are considering other directions for Meeting Russia.
Course of Public Diplomat
RHM: What is the "Course of Public Diplomat"?

Natalia Burlinova: It is the favorite fruit of my work. "A Special Course of Public Diplomat" is an educational project. Russia lacks public diplomacy specialists. They seldom recognize the differences between "public diplomacy", "social diplomacy", or "people's diplomacy", or understand how these notions co-exist. I wrote a study guide in order to systematize the terminology, and published it with the help of RIAC. But that was not enough, so I began to read lectures on the subject and arrange educational courses for anyone interested in exploring public diplomacy. Students of international relations prevail among the courses' attendees.

RHM: Another "Creative Diplomacy" project is the Kortunov Global Affairs Debates. To what and whom are the debates dedicated?

Natalia Burlinova: As I have said, our organization was created upon the initiative of students and postgraduates of the Higher School of Economics. Sergey Kortunov was a prominent international affairs expert who worked there. Unfortunately, Sergey Kortunov died tragically in 2010. We cherish his memory and decided to name our Debates in his honor. His brother, Andrey Kortunov, who works with the RIAC, stepped in to assist us. The project is 10 years old already. Every December we invite experts who represent different points of view and hold Debates on acute topics of foreign politics. When participants from across the ocean joined us, the debates became international, and have been so ever since.

RHM: What are the prospects of "Creative Diplomacy"?

Natalia Burlinova: We change our target audience and carry on with our projects. We also focus on the study of the Russian regions' public diplomacy potentials and of Russia's prospects in this sphere. Inside Russia, public diplomacy initiatives need to be coordinated, because now they are disorganized and chaotic. During some negotiations with our regional partners they made requests: "Please, let's run a project within which every participant will have its own function and coordinate its effort with that of other participants". That was how we came up with the idea of making an interactive map of Russian public diplomacy and a Public Diplomacy Index of the Russian Regions.

We continue Meeting Russia, the project is sponsored by a presidential grant.

We certainly continue the Kortunov Debates: today the topics for discussion are exorbitant. If Americans refuse to participate, we will find experts from other parts of the world.

We continue our educational courses. Europeans now abstain from cooperating with us, but I am sure they cannot long pretend to be disinterested in Russia. Soon it will be vital to discuss the growing snowball of problems. We are ready for it.
Kortunov Foreign Affairs Debates, 2017
Interviewed by Ignat Mateykov (RHM)

Cover photo: The Kortunov Debates, 2017