Opinion

Russian NGO can barely be heard in Europe

By Dr. Natalia Burlinova
Natalia Burlinova
Head of the non-governmental organization Creative Diplomacy (PICREADI)


The US and the NATO countries are successfully dispelling myths about the Western threat. What is Russia retaliating with? Lenta.ru interviewed Natalia Burlinova to understand what are the future Western leaders interested in and why Russia misses the opportunity to work with them. She and other enthusiasts do their best to show Russia without Matryoshka dolls, vodka, and balalaika.
Russian foreign policy is more than ballet, blini*, and the short-range ballistic missile system Iskander. It is difficult to explain it to the elderly in the West, but you try to work with the youth. Which Russia do you want to show them?
— We wanted to somehow explain Russian foreign policy, to make Russia more understandable. We wanted to explain it to young leaders of Europe, the US, and the CIS-countries, in other words to those who in ten years will work in think-tanks and decision-making organizations. This is our main activity.

Nowadays Creative Diplomacy has both internal and external dimensions of its work. The external one is for everyone interested in the Russian public diplomacy. The internal one is aimed at working with the Russian public diplomacy on the domestic level. The Russian International Affairs Council is quite proactive in helping us in this aspect. Creative Diplomacy issued a handbook "A Course in Public Diplomacy".

There are Russian books on public diplomacy, but there was no one that systematised it and gave an idea of its institutional dimension, exposing the major actors and explaining the Russian system of foreign policy.
What is public diplomacy?
— There is a fundamental difference between public diplomacy and peoples or citizen diplomacy, a term used in the Soviet time. They target different social groups. Public diplomacy aims at the goal to establish political dialogue between states by engaging in dialogue target groups: politicians, experts, journalists, young leaders.

The Meeting Russia Public Diplomacy Program for Young Leaders is the key public diplomacy project of our organization. It brings young leaders to Moscow and presents them the picture of Russian foreign policy landscape. This is an example of public diplomacy. In the US a special attention is paid to public diplomacy, and in Russia we focus more on citizen diplomacy. That is why in the US there is a very developed public diplomacy structure and big budget in the State Department. In Russia the Rossotrudnichestvo (The Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation – translator), as well as some other funds, responsible for Russia's image abroad are primarily focused on citizen diplomacy. And you will not find a big variety of public diplomacy programs for young leaders in Russia.
Meeting Russia participants in the briefing hall of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (March 2018)
For three years your work has been financed by presidential grants, does it mean that the government tasked you with this mission? Why is that?
— That's right. I don't know why, but our government decided not to work on public diplomacy at the formal level.

I believe that the main reason is the crisis of the 90th, which destroyed several Soviet political structures including the foreign ministry's ones which dealt with public diplomacy issues. These structures weren't restored. Those which still exist are not very efficient.

Secondly, our government seems not to be a big believer in public diplomacy projects. It seems strange to me that NATO does give particular importance to its public diplomacy, it has a special department for it, and a great number of programs for different target groups, namely journalists, students, and even teachers. And, for example, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (the CSTO) has nothing at all. In this light, we can also compare the EU and the EAEU (The Eurasian Economic Union). The former has quite a developed system of public diplomacy, and the latter has no such system at all. The reason probably lies in the way of thinking of officials who consider public diplomacy to be a pointless activity.
Let us pretend that I am a high-ranking official. How would you explain to me the goals of public diplomacy, why I should allocate some financial resources to it, what will be the short-term and the middle-term results?
— Public diplomacy allows you to work with future political leaders of other countries and to strengthen friendly relations with them. This isn't about propaganda or agents of influence. It is aimed at explaining your country's foreign policy to the young political leadership, who will shape their country's relations with Russia in the future. We should work with them now, not in the future.

Those who participated in US public diplomacy programs in some way change their attitude to the country. Even if you don't support US foreign policy, you will still feel attachment to its people and places. It's about human emotions. That is why the USSR paid great attention to the promotion of the Soviet way of life engaging the youth and public youth organizations, creating a large network of public diplomacy. Modern Russia is still failing to do so.
Americans have a good saying: "Ignorance leads to hatred". You want foreign future leaders to know and understand Russian foreign policy. And do you yourself understand it?
— It's hard to say. We position ourselves as a friendly organization to our state. We work on foreign policy issues, so it is extremely important to be careful and respectful towards the country. At the same time, we are not involved in propaganda matters, as any public policy organization should not do.

When people start this programme they are afraid of hearing that the US and NATO are a disaster and Russia is so good. But we welcome their most acute questions, their debates, and so they "thaw", cease to think that the government controls everything here in Russia. That is the main aim of the public diplomacy programs, in other words, these programs don't transform enemies into friends, but make the enemy opt for a dialogue, rather than for a war.
So, you say that you are friendly to the state. The authors of American sanctions try to separate "the ruling regime" and "the country as a whole". Do you also separate these notions or you are explaining the ongoing policy and working in this policy's paradigm?
— We rather try to make clear the fundamental views of Russian policy that will not change when the president or government change. There are some basic things in our foreign policy.
What are these basic things?
— It is our relations with Europe, for instance. We are partners, in spite of our disputes. Russia's Eastward Turn is good, bit technologically and socially Europe is our vital partner. Another example is the Crimean agenda. The public attitude towards Crimea and its reunification with Russia is unlikely to change.
Do you use the word "reunification"?
— Yes, I do, because I support these events, even having in mind all the legal and other difficulties. From my point of view, it's all crystal clear.

My goal is to give young Russian speakers, who don't always have to support official foreign policy, could explain motives and interests of the Russian foreign policy and why this motives and interests do not change regardless of the political leader in the country. I think that there is a myth in the West that foreign policy in Russia will change if the regime changes.
Photo: Reuters/Vladimir Sergeev
Fundamentally, you consider Europe to be our partner. But we witness that our partnership relations are not going well. What are other keystones of our foreign policy, apart from Crimea and Europe?
— From my perspective, we can talk about Russia's very close attention to what is happening on its borders and in the neighboring states.
In other words, you mean the zone of influence?
— Yes, it is okay to use this old term. Primarily, Russia is interested in stability near its borders. It is vitally important to avoid any kind of provocation of conflicts, as we have had this painful experience. We don't claim to be a global leader or to control every corner of the planet, but this region around our country is a security belt, which Russia is going to preserve for itself.
Participants of your programmes mentioned, for example, that there were meetings with members of the State Duma. Does it make sense to organize meetings with MPs in a country where all the decisions are taken exclusively in the Kremlin?
— I would disagree with you, but we will not discuss the Russian system of decision making now. Here in Russia we extremely lack a high-quality debate on foreign policy. I am not referring to TV programmes, I mean good expert discussions. Governmental bodies, including the Parliament, could be a part of these debates.

What's more, there is a lot of quite interesting figures among politicians. For instance, we organized a meeting with Inga Yumashova. She is a young member of the Parliament. She is brave enough to maintain contacts with the USA via Congress. Why should not we demonstrate to our American counterparts that we don't want a war, but we seek to enhance dialogue between the parliaments.

So, you believe that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes no decisions? Perhaps, but this is the center where the basis for decision-making and recommendations is formed. It is the operational center of the Russian foreign policy. And of course if you consider yourself an expert in foreign policy, you should go there and communicate with those who work there to feel the style, the sense and the rhythm of official Russian rhetoric.
At the State Duma, meeting with Deputy Inga Yumasheva, a member of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs
You have mentioned the interparliamentary dialogue. Do you explain the difference between the powers and influence of a member of Duma and a congressman of the US House of Representatives to your students?
— Our participants are not first-year students. They are young experts, who are well aware of Russian realities, that's true, that sometimes they imagine these realities in a very pessimistic way. We ask them to put any questions. This year group was exceptionally positive and we even asked them to think more critically and to ask more acute questions.

The main advantage of our program is that we try to distance from putting any emphasis. Last year we organized a great workshop on fake news and invited speakers with radically different views. We had speakers from the Tsargrad TV (very conservative private TV channel), Kommersant (liberal newspaper), RT (state television), and the Guardian (foreign newspaper). We had extremely interesting debates. We try to organize space to communicate, to understand each other, we demonstrate that there are different views that cannot be simplified.
Both foreign and domestic policies of Russia are quite closed-door. That is why many influential political Telegram channels have emerged. Do you explain it to the participants or you just show the official facade?
— Nowadays, we believe that it necessary to give them access to governmental bodies, to which they couldn't enter otherwise, in order to "interrogate" the speakers, to listen to the official stance, to ask acute questions.

A lot of experts in international relations work with us. Right now that's enough for me because I appreciate professionalism. So, I don't trust those Telegram channels with unproved information and anonymous authors. From my perspective, these resources are unreliable, and I believe that Russian diplomats and Russian experts know about Russian foreign policy much better.
You have said that you ask the participants to put acute questions. What are they interested in? Which myths are the most widespread?
— Usually, they are interested in the human rights topic. There is a set of questions we hear every year. They rarely ask about LGBT rights directly, but they ask about democratic institutions, human rights. Foreign sanctions issue is also very relevant. Recently we've had a workshop on cybersecurity in RIAC with prominent experts. The participants were very interested in this topic.
In 2017 the British Council issued a report on Russian soft power. The report listed 5 most influential soft power agencies, namely: the Rossotrudnichestvo, Russkiy Mir Foundaion, Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund, RIAC, and Creative Diplomacy. It speaks volumes to me.
With Skripal poisoning and GRU interference in foreign elections, do you consider soft power to be really relevant? Does it matter who is right, if storm clouds are gathering?

It is and will remain relevant, without any distinction to political events and our relations with Europe and the West. Because everything develops in a sinusoid, the phases of rapprochement and alienation change each other. It is extremely important to establish sustainable institutions and communication and cooperation lines.

Our relations are constantly changing, and there must be a communication mechanism among the future young leaders. That is why Russia should use every platform to explain its stance. As Russian NGO voice can barely be heard in Europe, it is important to use social platforms and let the experts speak.

In 2017 the British Council issued a report on Russian soft power. The report listed 5 most influential soft power organizations, namely: the Rossotrudnichestvo, Russkiy Mir Foundaion, the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund, RIAC, and Creative Diplomacy. It speaks volumes to me.

Firstly, if our small organization managed to enter the list, it means that other organizations are quite passive. Our one-year project's budget equals 2.5 million rubles, which is next to zero in comparison with other funds on the list. It seems to me that we entered the list because we are very proactive and our work was noteworthy. Especially in comparison with other Russian organizations, but for RIAC. I have no questions to RIAC. They do a great job and maintain contacts with experts worldwide.
Photo: Meeting Russia Expert Workshop at RIAC
How many people work in your fund?
— It depends on the project, from 4 to 5. We can hire more people if we need them for a project.
How Creative Diplomacy was founded?
— A group of like-minded students of Higher School of Economics decided that they wanted to have something to do with Russian foreign policy and international relations. Not everyone was planning to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affair, but everyone preserved interest and enthusiasm towards foreign policy and diplomacy. What's more, it was created during the Medvedev presidency, with "modernization" and "creativity" everywhere. So, we used the very this word "creativity" in our name in contrast to the "office" diplomacy.
In other words, a few Atlases and RIAC assistance keep Russian public diplomacy alive?
— I wouldn't like to say so. The problem is that Russian non-profit organizations are afraid of going abroad. Most of the organization financed by presidential grants works with Russian-speaking people both in Russia or in its border regions. We lack large-scale, global projects.

Why there are still no projects in Russia like the Munich Young Leaders program? The Körber Foundation in Germany invites young leaders and brings them to Germany during the Munich Security Conference. They meet with conference speakers. With presidents and ministers!

I have participated in the MYL programs, along with other Russian experts. Every year the alumni are invited to "reunite". That is where the most prominent young leaders of the international community gather. Some former ministers are among the alumni. It speaks volumes about the quality of selection. Why cannot we organize such program here in Russia?

"Meeting Russia" is similar to this programme. We have been working for 3 years, but we lack resources. There are no guarantees that we will receive a new grant next time. Russian NGO in the field of international relations lack stable financial support.
Körber History Forum 2016
The lack of permanent funding allows you to be an independent actor, otherwise, it's easy to blame you for working for the state.
— That's not true and I'm constantly addressing these allegations. What is the Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organization? For instance, Boris Nemtsov Foundation states that every Russian non-profit organization is a pro-Kremlin organization. In Washington, this Foundation regularly issues reports on how bad these organizations are. They state that any contact with Russian officials makes you not trust-worthy. A GONGO is a structure that the government created on purpose or it is permanently directly financed from the state budget.

How does our organization function? It's very hard. We try to earn some money using our knowledge, we have designed a training course on public diplomacy. We organize workshops. This is how we preserve our independence. The only one project of our NGO is funded with state funding via a contest. All the other projects are realized on the voluntary basis or using our own investments.

This is how all the Russian non-profit organizations function, barring those directly involved in the Kremlin activities. All Russian non-profit organizations work for the Kremlin. That's not true. Surprisingly enough it may sound, but I have never spoken to anyone in the Presidential Executive Office. Everyone asks me whether I have any contacts in the Executive Office, for instance, you have asked me why we don't organize meetings in the decision-making centers.
Would you organize it?
— Yes, I would. I wrote a formal letter for Mr. Kiriyenko [First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office] requesting a meeting with the participants. Needless to say, we received no answer. What I am trying to say is that even tiny independence is very valuable. And we try to demonstrate it to our Western partners. We agree with the state on many foreign policy issues, but it doesn't mean that the Kremlin supervises our work. Many people don't understand this.
So, the Russian state considers your organization to have no purpose?
— It ignores us. As if we didn't exist. We aren't important and noteworthy; we don't organize grandiose projects and festivals. We aim at quality. I would like to reiterate that we are not a propaganda project, we are a public diplomacy project. It cannot bring rapid results. That is why our state isn't interested in it.

Presidential grants require reporting on how many people arrived, how many participated, how many publications were issued. How can I ensure that all the participants write about our programme the next day after the programme? I cannot force them to do it. It doesn't work this way, there are different approaches.

To the credit of the Presidential Grants Foundation, I should acknowledge that they have done a really formidable job. I have participated in the contests before the Foundation was established, and it changed everything. Firstly, now I communicate with the supervisor online, as the whole procedure has been digitalized. Secondly, it is transparent and clear, all the financial resources are strictly monitored, so all the expenditures are evident.

As I have worked in the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund, which is a grantgiving foundation, I am well aware of the importance of expenditures supervision. Apart from the fact that it isn't interesting for our state, public diplomacy is socially perceived as a PR and monetization tool. It's not the foundation's fault, as there are no high-quality applications.
It seems that the lack of state's interest in you is a sign of a nation-wide problem, namely the lack of long-term planning. Don't you think so? In fact, Russia has no ideology and understanding of what will happen in the next 5-10 years. You are suggesting that we think for decades ahead, while our government struggles to adopt a three-year budget.
— You're absolutely right. Firstly, there is a lack of high-quality debate. Everyone engaged in public diplomacy understands it. We lack public debate on foreign policy.
What do you think, what are the reasons?
— The reason is that those in the decision-making centers, with all the due respect for their expertise, believe that they can do without experts' views. They have other informing organizations.
The US has adopted the "revolving door" policy, meaning that yesterday's experts will take up jobs in the government. Under the current Russian authorities, it's OK to employ an old friend. So, the experts and debates are useless, aren't they?
— I believe that a wise leader, even an authoritarian one, needs debates to identify opposite points of view. The debates are sure to exist inside the above-mentioned bodies, but the problem is that they fail to engage the society. Obviously, there are diplomats - experts meetings… The civil society itself is passive, there is no debate club in the field of foreign policy. There is a good example, in collaboration with RIAC we organize Sergey Kortunov Young Experts' Debate. Usually, there are heated discussions in this club. Even Ms. Zakharova [the Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation] has been discussing some issues with the participants for an hour and a half, although she didn't plan to do so.
The Kortunov's Young Experts Debates, organized by RIAC and Creative Diplomacy
Our government pays little attention to the consequences of image problems. To present yourself, to shape your image, the government should engage the society.
— Do you agree that if both public and expert debates had existed, the Crimean, Syrian, and Donbas crises have been resolved in a more adjusted, strategically consistent, and beneficial way?
— There I think we talk about those matrixes of Russian politics that we discussed in the beginning. I don't think that the solutions could have been different. Probably, they might have been more sophisticated.

This debate could rather have demonstrated that this decision wasn't made by a group of individuals. It could have proved that in spite of various views, the majority of Russians and experts, in particular, consider the decisions on Syria to be right.

What is the problem of the Western perception of Russia? The West doesn't trust Russian authorities, as our state seems to disregard the needs of the society. Nevertheless, it does regard them indirectly, as it is confident that it knows that the society is thinking about. There should be a public debate to demonstrate that the society upholds, or not in the minority of cases, Russian foreign policy. This is the government image issue.
So, you believe that public debate will result in loyal Russians' "Yes, Your Honour!" to the state?
— No, that's a simplification. It will result not only in a "Yes, Your Honour!", but in solutions of different problems and issues as well. The dialogue between the government and the experts should discuss how to explain Russian stance in foreign conferences. The state should explain the whys, whats, and hows so that the experts could convey its stance, rather than justify the lack of knowledge.
Interviewed by Alexey Naumov, Foreign Desk Chief at Lenta.ru

The original material in Russian here
*blini - traditional Russian pancakes