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Analysis & Opinion
16.04.08 A Soft Touch
Comment by Georgy Bovt

Some political analysts and experts have said lately that Russia should more actively employ so-called “soft power” in its foreign policy. Obviously, this is the result of a certain disappointment with the results of displays of “hard power,” policies based on the use of force and the threat of force.

There is no doubt that Russia’s position on the international arena has changed in recent years. Nowadays, it is customary for the Russian political elite to say that Russia has gained more respect and that its voice is now being heard. This is largely true.

However, there are other developments as well. Russia’s strengthened role has brought it neither more friends, nor more allies. Relations between Russia and the European Union are undergoing the most serious crisis of the post-Soviet era. An integration project with the Commonwealth of Independent States has stagnated for some years now, while centrifugal forces within the CIS are gaining strength. Two core members of the Commonwealth – Ukraine and Georgia – have their sights set on NATO.

The simplest explanation for all of this is “intrigues” by the United States and “conspiracies” against a strengthening Russia. Of course, international politics is always a field for rivalry, even when one country is able to establish bilateral or multilateral cooperation.

At the same time, international relations have long ceased to be a zero-sum game in the modern world. This is a complex interaction, which requires the skillful and flexible coordination of a variety of instruments including, among others, increasingly large-scale use of soft power.

Most often, the ultimate objective of applying this soft power is not achieving some immediate, let alone material, gain, but rather in developing a durable humanitarian basis for solving future problems. The greater the value placed on mutual understanding between the cooperating countries, the easier it is to find a compromise in the future. This is because soft power is largely reflective of the image of one country or another.

Traditionally, soft power encompasses different types of humanitarian and educational programs. Russia today is somewhere halfway between acknowledging its complete failure in this direction in the last few years and finally taking some steps toward correcting the situation.

Today, tens of thousands of foreign students come to the United States each year. Often the cost of their studies is fully covered by the American government, or they are given significant discounts and benefits. After returning to their home countries (according to the visa regulations, student visa holders must spend at least two years working in the field of their professional degree after completing their studies in the United States), these people either become sympathetic to America or at least understand America’s motivations. Moreover, they are able to talk to partners within the same categorical (and sometimes the same value-oriented) apparatus, and they find compromises much easier.

After September 11, 2001, the State Department made the process of obtaining student visas more complicated and tough, in just two years, it led not only to a decrease in the number of foreign students in the United States, but also to a rise of serious concern over this matter at the highest political levels. The country started trying to reverse the course. In Russia, it seems, nobody at all cares about the problem of educating foreign students.

Last year, at the behest of President Vladimir Putin, the Russky Mir (Russian World) Foundation was created to stem the tide and bolster Russia’s soft power. Its primary aim is to carry Russian culture abroad, promoting and supporting the spread and preservation of Russian language and to strengthen ties with compatriots that live outside of Russia.

The humanitarian mission of Russky Mir in itself is a huge step in the right direction. Now the foundation will have to prove its mettle at not only refuting negative perceptions of Russia, but also bypassing the stifling environment of the inveterate Russian bureaucracy. The fact is that the existing Russian legislation does not really favor any type of humanitarian, educational or charity foundation. Russian legislation is not really suited for using soft power at all.

Sometimes “soft power” policy boils down to simple – and even commonplace – things. With Ukraine, for example, as soon as Victor Yanukovich’s government resigned, the Russian authorities canceled simplified registration procedures for Ukrainian citizens. Now they, just like citizens of any other foreign country, have to register with migration authorities within three days of entering the country.

The humiliating and unprecedented registration procedure itself, which does not exist in Europe, America or even China, is an example of anti-soft power. Its mere existence creates an impression of Russia as a retrograde country, afraid of foreigners, like medieval Japan, and bureaucratized to the extreme.

Registration of foreigners demonstrates once again that the problem of employing soft power in Russia’s foreign policy can be solved only in the context of an overall transformation of the current regime toward increased transparency and humanization. Soft power can not appear in foreign policy without fundamentally expanding the field of application of this soft power in Russia’s domestic policy, and primarily in the relationship between the regime and the country’s population. This relationship needs to become more “enlightened,” trusting and humane.

Thus, the key to solving many of our foreign policy problems can be found within Russia itself.
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