We promote meaningful expert dialogue about Russia
  • Natalia Burlinova
    President and founder of PICREADI
Creative Diplomacy (CD): At the beginning of December, Creative Diplomacy completed the Meeting Russia project. Where did the project idea come from?

Natalia Burlinova: Meeting Russia, a public diplomacy program for young leaders, is our main project and, so to speak, the face of the organization for foreign audiences. Several years ago, I was invited to participate in the Munich Young Leaders (MYL) program, the Körber-Stiftung project, which I assume is the best international project for young leaders. This program is the gold standard when it comes to working with young politicians, diplomats, journalists, civil servants, experts, and representatives of the nonprofit sector, i.e., all the people who represent the would-be managers and leaders of their countries. Every year the program brings together outstanding young representatives under 40 years of age. German Embassies in the selected countries employ their networks to propose potential candidates later chosen by the Körber-Stiftung. Aspiring leaders are invited to attend a three-day event full of meetings and discussions on the margins of the high-profile Munich Security Conference.

MYL participants have a great opportunity to meet behind closed doors with global leaders, presidents, diplomats, military officers, ministers, and many others. The program is exceptional. One of a kind. However, young leaders' involvement does not end here: the Körber-Stiftung runs the Munich Young Leaders alumni network and keeps in touch with the participants. MYL alumni are invited to the most prominent events while the annual alumni meetings are held in different countries. The MYL is successfully establishing the Germany-friendly network at the level of young global leaders. And over the past ten years, Germany has developed a solid alumni community, including many remarkable individuals currently occupying high-level positions in their countries: ministers, administration officials, business representatives. For instance, in January 2021, MYL alumna Amanda Sloat was appointed as Joe Biden's Senior Director for European Affairs within the National Security Council. The MYL platform is a part of Germany's public policy aimed at promoting the country's soft power.

Russia has never had anything like this on such a serious global level. When I was working at the RIA Novosti news agency (currently - Russia Today media outlet, ed. note) and the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund), I actively advocated the idea of such a project, but it did not work out. It surprises me that the Valdai Discussion Club has not launched a similar initiative, for example, the Valdai Young Leaders program. The Gorchakov Fund runs the Dialogue in the Name of the Future, but it is mostly designed for the leaders of the former Soviet states. When I embarked on working for the nonprofit organization, I realized that even at the level of a small NGO, we might be able to do something remotely similar. Currently, we are running the Meeting Russia program which has actually turned into a well-known brand.
CD: Could you elaborate on the project? Who are the program's target audiences?

Natalia Burlinova: The program is focused on those beyond Russia's public diplomacy agenda, namely young Western leaders in the United States and the European Union. In a pre-pandemic setting, the project was organized in the following way: participants selected on a competitive basis arrived in Moscow to spend three days meeting with key Russian experts in international affairs, ministry representatives and civil servants, diplomats, and politicians. They had a unique opportunity to hear first-hand about Russia's foreign policy. We had meetings in the State Duma , the Council of the Federation , the Ministry of Defense as well as in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The working language of the program is English so we tend to invite English-speaking panelists. Fortunately, that is quite easy in Moscow since the younger generation of experts speaks fluent English.

The fourth edition of the program was held in 2020. We decided not to cancel it and organized virtual sessions. Capturing participants' attention for three days running was rather challenging, yet it created additional opportunities to invite prominent speakers: for example, Maria Zakharova, the Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who joined us via videoconference. In the past, it was impossible to invite Ms. Zakharova to speak at our meetings due to her overloaded schedule, but this year we were happy to meet her online.
CD: How does one take part in the project? How strict is the selection of participants?

Natalia Burlinova: The applications must be submitted via the online form after the call for applications has opened. We select the applicants based on their resumes. The primary criterion is the overlap of academic or professional background with international relations, as well as practical or scientific interest in Russia and its foreign policy. This is what attracts our attention in the first place. However, it is not mandatory. Sometimes there are participants who are not engaged in working with Russia, but we are interested in their professional activities.
CD: What are the program's goals and objectives? What do you communicate to the participants about Russia?

Natalia Burlinova: The main idea of the project is to find individuals, young leaders who are interested in dialogue and discussion on the pressing issues in international relations and Russia's foreign policy, who are ready to hear Russia's point of view from the experts in the field. This is the backbone of the project. What makes the project a stand-out is that we engage Russia's top-notch international experts and usually invite representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and relevant organizations to take part in the project. All the invited speakers are high-caliber professionals who share their views with the attendees and answer their sometimes extremely toug questions.

Our top priority is to develop a pool of young leaders who are ready to cooperate with us in expert-level discussions of essential issues. We do intend to keep in touch with the young leaders, facilitate further cooperation and engage them in other relevant expert initiatives. I would like to highlight that we are not talking about PROPAGANDA. The key word is DIALOGUE. No doubt we are interested in putting forward our own arguments, but our task is not to convince, rather to show through discussions why certain issues are so vital for Russia, why our foreign policy is like this and not similar to other countries, why Russia must act in this way, and what our national interests and priorities are.
CD: What are the key considerations in selecting speakers? Do they have to hold pro-government views?

Natalia Burlinova: To answer this question, I would like to return to my previous reply. First and foremost, we are not engaged in propaganda. Second, the program is focused on Russian foreign policy, so it involves officials who represent pro-government views as they interact with the participants. Third, we bring in a wide range of international experts who may have both pro-government and more liberal views. Our speakers are always professionals, and their expertise and competences are the key consideration. It is the hallmark of our project.
Discussion on cyber security with Russian experts on the basis of the Russian International Affairs Council: Oleg Shakirov, Timur Makhmutov
CD: Can we call Meeting Russia a pro-government project? Does Creative Diplomacy engage in the pro-Russian propaganda?

Natalia Burlinova: Let me reword your question and say that we are engaged in the propaganda of professional expert dialogue about Russia which involves Russian professionals. It is of utmost importance. We consider it crucial for young Western leaders to interact with the Russian experts who are in charge of our foreign policy; those who know it first-hand, and have dedicated their life to it, and are recognized experts in the field. This is the hallmark of our project.

Numerous European projects, particularly those with an anti-Russian sentiment, are notorious for inviting speakers with a low expertise to give talks on Russia. We stand for professional dialogue.

Regarding the status of the project: technically the program is funded by the Presidential Grant Foundation. We won the grant three times. In Russia, I should mention, this is the only opportunity for non-profit organizations to receive funding. Many Russian NGOs benefit from this opportunity, as every year they submit thousands of applications to the Foundation in a wide variety of fields. Technically, the money for the project comes from the state. If you ask me whether the state interferes in the content of the project in any way, I would say no. Not once has there ever been any interference. The only thing that the government is concerned about with regard to the Foundation is the possible misuse of funds. In other words, the government strictly controls the financial reporting. Which is absolutely appropriate from the point of view of a developed state governed by the rule of law.

In 2020, Meeting Russia was held online without involving any state or private funding. This year we are operating without any financial support, therefore one can call us a self-sustained project.
The experts discussed with the participants the transformation of the American domestic and foreign policy course under the administration of Joseph Biden.
Participant of Meeting Russia 2019 Lauren Rogers shares her impressions about the program.
CD: What do you think of participants who criticize Russia's policies? Do you facilitate discussions on sensitive and controversial topics like Crimea crisis or sanctions against Russia?

Natalia Burlinova: First and foremost, it is expertise and competence that matter, and political views take a back seat. Indeed, among our participants, especially from Germany and the U.S., in previous years there were quite a few people who expressed critical attitudes toward both the project itself and issues discussed. Participants arrived expecting to be told how great Putin or Russia was. They had fears of being exposed to the notorious propaganda, or even recruited as human agents. On the first day of the program, it was clear that many of the attendees had their reservations. However, the atmosphere of our meetings and discussions proved that we were ready to welcome different perspectives, as well as prepared to debate and argue. By the end of the program, participants had a different perspective. We did not change their minds but we showed them that it was possible to communicate with us in a way that is in line with Western settings.

We do touch upon sensitive issues, and moreover, I always encourage participants to ask challenging questions. Once, attendees felt uneasy coming up with such questions and it was only after my request that they began to raise pressing topics. Nonetheless, heated debates do emerge on the third day of the program. This is Meeting Russia Discussion Day. There are no key speakers on this day's agenda but we invite a group of Russian participants, young but promising experts, journalists, and researchers. We facilitate their dialogue with the program attendees which gives rise to heated debate. The discussions are tough but fascinating.
CD: Do you keep in touch with the participants after Meeting Russia is over? Given that your main audiences are young leaders from the U.S. and the EU, is it difficult to sustain a dialogue with your Western colleagues in the face of mutual alienation and propaganda?

Natalia Burlinova: We are doing our best, but it is not that easy. To begin with, participants leave for their countries, everyone has their own priorities to attend to. The Körber-Stiftung keeps in touch with its alumni by inviting participants to Germany and other countries for retreats. We are a small NGO, and our resources are limited even with a grant. Last year's shift to virtual conferences came in quite handy. We often host online meetings, one of our current initiatives is the Online Meeting Russia Alumni Club attended by a group of the most active alumni. But of course, no virtual meetings can replace personal presence, so we are looking forward to getting back to normal. We'd like our participants to visit Russia and to have an opportunity to bring together over 60 alumni in one of the country's regions.
CD: What is the ultimate goal of Creative Diplomacy? What is your mission?

When Creative Diplomacy was founded by a group of young activist graduate students, we intended to develop public diplomacy and provide expertise and information support for Russian foreign policy. Eventually we became involved in the study of public diplomacy. Today, Creative Diplomacy represents a synergy between a think-tank specializing in the theory of public diplomacy and Russia's soft power, and a public organization of action, which organizes outreach activities in the field. We have launched and are successfully advancing the academic initiative on public diplomacy in Russia. In collaboration with the Russian International Affairs Council, we developed a scientific theory of public diplomacy in Russia. We designed a course book and a special course on public diplomacy. We hold educational courses, organize workshops, and conduct lectures on relevant issues. For more than 10 years our organization has been a platform facilitating dialogue and discussions among young specialists engaged in international affairs. To this end, we conduct Foreign Policy Debates to commemorate Russian political scientist Dr Sergei Kortunov.

From an international perspective, we are focused on the outreach and promotion of Meeting Russia. We are actively expanding our resources in English.
CD: What is your vision of the further development of public diplomacy in Russia and how can the program participants contribute?

Natalia Burlinova: Developing public diplomacy in Russia is a very complicated task. From theoretical and practical points of view I assume that we in Russia do not utilize all our resources in this area and therefore do not play to our strengths. Our experts keep producing engaging reviews on this topic. In February 2020, together with the Russian International Affairs Council, we released the report '10 Steps Towards Effective Public Diplomacy in Russia', which presented practical recommendations for improving the system of Russian public diplomacy. This topic is worthy of a different interview.

To sum up, I would say that the problem is multifaceted and cannot be solved simply by reforming the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation, should this even occur at all. It concerns staff training, financing, and coordination of Russian public diplomacy structures. A myriad of things to consider. Most importantly, one has to be aware of the need for structural transformations. People must acknowledge the importance of both 'soft power' and public diplomacy tools. Once the Valdai Discussion Club or the Gorchakov Fund or similar institutions launch youth programs at federal level, then I will be able to say with confidence that the situation is improving. For the time being, there is nothing to comment on. You are welcome to read our report, and I suggest that we talk about this in our next interview.

Interviewed by Marina Chagina, editor-in-chief (www.picreadianalitika.ru)