«My colleagues share the opinion that Russia's foreign politics is done by bookkeepers, not diplomats»
Sergey Petrosov
  • Sergey Petrosov
    Executive Secretary of the Belgian Federation of Russian-Speaking Organizations (BFRO) (Namur, Belgium)

  • Sergey Petrosov, Executive Secretary of the Belgian Federation of Russian-Speaking Organizations
    shared his ideas on the development of relations between Russia and the Russian diaspora, Russian soft power and the prospects of the Card of Compatriot.
Natalia Burlinova: Is the project "Card of Compatriot" still on the agenda of Russia's interaction with the Russian World? Do you think Russian compatriots want to receive the Card under the current circumstances?

Sergey Petrosov: It is true that the events in Ukraine cast doubt on the applicability of the Card of Compatriot. However, the "unfriendly countries" make up only 15% of the world's countries, and in 85% countries, including most former Soviet republics, the Russian compatriots are in the same position as before. Most our compatriots live in the "unfriendly countries", but this only makes the Card of Compatriot and all things connected with the project as relevant as ever. They will serve as instruments of upholding a spiritual connection with the Motherland, of protecting the entire Russian world against the growingly hostile international environment.

Some history: when in 2008 amendments to the federal law on Russia's state policy regarding compatriots were under discussion at the Universal Conference of Compatriots, most participants supported the Card of Compatriot initiative and even called for immediate putting the initiative into practice. To our surprise, it then turned out that the essence of the phenomenon had been washed out by the amendments. And that big mistake underlies the previous and current problems of the Compatriots movement.

Also, because of the present state of things, people grow apprehensive about receiving any Russian document. At the same time, the "unfriendly countries" will create obstacles for their people who will want to get the Russian documents nonetheless, will probably even prosecute the holders of the Cards. The advantage of our project is that it is not about a Russian government-issued document, but of a membership card of an international non-governmental organization uniting Russophiles – an NGO registered in Luxemburg, Switzerland or the Seychelles without any formal ties with the Russian state authorities, to say nothing of any financial or political dependence.

So, to dispel all doubts, I can assure you that modern technologies allow the project to function as an application available for downloading on any gadget anywhere in the world. With a considerable number of supporters, such NGO might become influential and efficient in foreign affairs, might become an instrument of public diplomacy protecting our traditional values, as well as the interests of our compatriots worldwide.

Natalia Burlinova: I must admit that, with Rossotrudnichestvo and the Gorchakov Fund under sanctions, we are running out of official public diplomacy instruments. Under the circumstances, we pin our hopes on the compatriots.

Sergey Petrosov:
And the hopes can be justified, if we succeed in building the structure I have described. The international experience speaks in favor of this. All countries invest in the development of larger or smaller expat communities of their compatriots, in using their potentials. The classic example is the Jewish diaspora, but the Armenian, Chinese, Irish communities lobby the interests of their motherlands in all parts of the world, too. We cannot borrow everything from their experience, but it is obvious that well-organized and consolidated expat communities can become serious instruments of lobbying the international interest of Russia, especially when the communities are large and found anywhere in the world. But the communities must have an agency of their own, an officially registered NGO, like for example, the Assembly of French Citizens Abroad that was created more than 90 (!) years ago and has been efficient ever since. To top it off, France is the leading country in today's global soft power rating.
The Soft Power 30 (2019)
Natalia Burlinova: If we think of the Card of Compatriot in the beginning of 2022, what would you call the biggest obstacle on the way of implementing the project?

Sergey Petrosov:
Firstly, the scope and the price of it. The project envisages creating an administrative structure, developing an attractive and convenient application, adding services and bonuses. These things take time and money. The project is future-oriented, and in Russia investors prefer short-term projects.

Secondly, many partners I addressed refused to recognize the necessity of the project. Appallingly few people in Russia realize the significance of the expat communities. People have got used to the existing structure that functions more or less efficiently and do not feel like engaging in such major projects.

Natalia Burlinova: You are right. I often come across this lack of understanding why soft power and public diplomacy are necessary. Meanwhile Eduard Lozansky had researched the Russian diaspora in the USA, the lobbying activities of diasporas in Congress, and the contribution the diasporas make into the bilateral relations.

Getting back to the Card of Compatriot, I believe the project will remain on the agenda due to the large number of Russian expats. Please, tell our readers what the Card has to offer and what makes it attractive?

Sergey Petrosov: First of all, it offers the consolidation of the expat community. Here I must admit that the term "consolidation" is beaten to death and has been proclaimed as the goal since the II Congress of Compatriots (2006) but not filled with any practical measures, like creating a distinct structure or developing horizontal and vertical integration. But perhaps the Card will be the long-awaited practical step.

Secondly, participants will enjoy certain bonuses and privileges. Again, I must admit that it is counterproductive to call upon people to participate in an unclear and indistinct initiative, such as this virtual "consolidation", without offering anything in return. But there are things to offer: privileges when traveling to Russia, discounts from Russian companies! It involves the vast spheres of culture, transport, insurance, hotel business, tourism, advertising. The spheres are extremely interested in such clients. Even a pessimistic scenario, when only 1 – 5 % of the target audience will wish to receive the Card (download it as an app), promises 300,000 – 1,5 million people. The scheme is not new, it has been successfully used worldwide, but the Russian know-how is to apply the scheme to the Russian expat communities.

Natalia Burlinova: Mutually beneficial cooperation is a sphere more suitable for business than the state, but business nowadays shuns such projects to avoid sanctions.

Sergey Petrosov: The thing is, it cannot be a state project. Like I said, it is about the establishment of an NGO abroad. The state support can be merely political and ideological. For example, the establishment of the NGO should be approved at the next Universal Congress of Compatriots. Also, the state should then cooperate with the NGO in representing Russian compatriots in the Russian governmental agencies, creating dialogue platforms, tackling such crucial issues as citizenship, legal protection, consular services, resettlement programs, Russian schools abroad and so on. The state should also bring the NGO together with the Russian civil society organizations like Creative Diplomacy.

As for business, it is indeed difficult to find investors today (by the way, the state might assist in finding them). But the time will come to reconstruct our relations with the West, and the Russian expat communities might drive the reconstruction activities. I am convinced that responsible and socially oriented business should not be afraid to support our project.
Natalia Burlinova: At what stage is the project currently? What reaction does it get from the compatriots?

Sergey Petrosov: We are about to launch the project. Everything is ready: the organization, the structure, draft charter documents and budget, the draft web site and application have all been represented to the Russkiy Mir Foundation and received approval from its Chairman, Vyacheslav Nikonov.

The main thing is, the idea is gaining popularity and staunch supporters who promote the project and the compatriot movement.

Natalia Burlinova: Do other Russian structures support the project? How does the Ministry of Foreign Affairs look upon it?

Sergey Petrosov: We have negotiated and presented the project to different audiences and in enough places to understand that it gains approval – anywhere except for the Foreign Ministry. Perhaps the Ministry views the project as its own alternative or competitor in the field of running the vertical coordination and the councils for compatriots.

But I reiterate: we do not offer an alternative or challenge the leading role of the Foreign Ministry in interacting with the expat communities. Our initiatives aim at consolidating and integrating the entire positive experience of the past 15 years, at giving an impetus for development, updating and adding a new meaning to it. Neither does our initiative require a change of the current legislation.

What we need is to be lent an attentive ear and get a positive answer in the interests of both the expat communities and the state.
The Spring of Our Discontent
A literature-based essay by Olga Tipaylova on the misperceptions between Russia and the West
Sooner or later we'll have to find ways out of the current crisis, rebuild and normalize our relations with the West. The Russian expat communities could play a big role in the process.
Natalia Burlinova: We had hoped that while the Russian legislators and governmental structures were under sanctions, such organizations as Creative Diplomacy would provide dialogue. But the field of interaction with the American society and other audiences is being cleansed. (Note: on July, 29, 2022, the USA imposed new sanctions against Russian citizens and organizations, including Creative Diplomacy. The Treasury Department of the US claims that the organizations from the sanctioned list "played different roles in Russia's attempts <...> to destabilize the USA, their allies and partners").

The same things may happen in Europe. Don't you think your organization may be blacklisted as a 'Kremlin agent', too?

Sergey Petrosov: I don't think so. There will be no formal reason for it. I reiterate, it is going to be an international NGO whose founders and participants will not be Russian legal entities or physical persons – and it will not be the first organization of the kind. We certainly will attract a lot of attention, but with correctly drafted charter documents, transparent and legal sources of finance, legal activities and timely accountability – we should not encounter problems.

Natalia Burlinova: Finally, I would like you to comment on the Russian soft power. How can we make it more efficient?

Sergey Petrosov:
The attitude of the society to soft power and public diplomacy leaves much to be desired. Perhaps the reasons are routed in the traditions and experience of our country, the traditionally dominant role of the state and lack of due attention to social initiative.
Another problem is money. I often come across the erroneous stereotype that social activism requires no money at all. But it is a complicated work taking a lot of time, intellectual and organizational effort. One can't just volunteer and cover expenses from own family budget.

If we take the subject of consolidation again, in material sense it will mean working meetings, communications, representation functions, hospitality expenses. In total they make a large sum. It is therefore weird that our diplomats should refer to documents and instructions that do not allow them to cover the Internet expenses, pay for the telephone, lease an office for coordination councils, or arrange working meetings. But these measures are necessary for the proclaimed consolidation. The situation is self-contradictory and has caused my colleagues to share the opinion that Russia's foreign politics is done by bookkeepers, not diplomats. Even embassies have to limit their activities to comply with the regulations of the Ministry of Finance.

I personally think that the problems we are currently trying to solve by military means could have been solved by soft power, had it been exercised over the past 15-20 years.

So, the efficiency of the Russian soft power can be increased by changing the patterns of financing and traditional attitude. And the changes are urgent. Sooner or later we'll have to find ways out of the current crisis, rebuild and normalize our relations with the West. The Russian expat communities could play a big role in the process. We have to prepare ourselves well for the moment. We have to finalize the documentation, the information and material bases. Nothing good comes out of working in an emergency mode. Our approach should be well-planned and progressive.
Cover photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash