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Soft power as a threat to a hard power

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2012 was fruitful for Russian legislators and painful for the NGOs. That year marked the series of laws threatening the fragile civil society in the country: penalties for violation of the law on assembly were toughened, defamation criminalized, and NGOs receiving foreign funding forced to register as “foreign agents”.

Later on the State Duma passed another law expanding the notions of “espionage” and “treason” as crimes that include “any financial, technical, advisory and other assistance to a foreign state or an international organization, as part of any activities directed against the security of Russian Federation”.

The NGO law: theory

The law states that Russian nonprofits that receive “funding or material support from foreign states, international and foreign organizations” and engaged in “political activities” are endowed with the status of a “foreign agent”. Also, any materials published or distributed by those organizations, even online, should be marked as “published by the organization performing functions of a foreign agent”. In case if an NGO refuse to register or provide any information on its finances, it may face a considerable fine and its representative could be imprisoned. The law significantly complicates the procedure of financial reporting and also gives grounds for unscheduled inspections.

The essential drawback of the law is that the definition of “political activity” is rather blurry. According to the lawmakers it includes any “political action or influence on public opinion aiming to change a policy”. Russian legislation does not provide a clear definition of these concepts and thus gives the freedom of interpretation to the authorities. However, activities in the field of science and education, culture, health, environment, social protection of citizens are exempt from the law as they are not “political”.

FARA: Is the US Russia’s role model?

In response to criticism of the law Russian officials contend that the same law exists in the United States, which proves that this kind of legislative act may be adopted in a democratic state. Indeed, the Russian NGO law seems to be “copied” from the American Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – it contemplates almost the same terminology and concepts and provides similar penalties for its violation. Both American FARA and the Russian NGO claim to “increase transparency”. A law, however, cannot be evaluated outside the context of its implementation practices.

FARA was adopted in 1938 and aimed to protect the Americans from foreign propaganda during the war. It required that the “agents” representing interests of foreign powers in the US politics have to disclose their ties with foreign governments and information on funding. Since then the law was several times amended, concepts specified, and the burden of proof elaborated. It has become so complicated that actually just a few criminal prosecution cases made it through the end. However, the most substantial distinction of FARA is that it primarily aims to disclose the foreign lobby that promotes its political interests in Congress and not any organization receiving funding from abroad.

The NGO law: practice

As the law came into force more than a thousand NGOs have been subjected to unscheduled inspections and searches, many of them got “warnings” that their activity is “political” and should be changed. Some organizations have been charged with administrative offences and fines, and their leaders prosecuted as they refused to enter the roster of Foreign Agents at the Ministry of Justice. The first organization to be recognized as a “foreign agent” was the Golos Association (“voice” or “vote”), Russia’s biggest organization protecting electoral rights. It had to pay a big fine and suspend work for several months but eventually they managed to win the court case.

Many Russian non-profits obtain funding through foreign grants and even though in many cases it is only a few percent of a budget, the government sees it as a reason to suggest that the organization represents interest of a foreign power. Lack of financing is quite a big problem for many of the Russian NGOs. Before the bill became law, Vladimir Putin claimed that public funding for nonprofits will be increased. Later it was confirmed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – he said that the government will support the NGOs, however, assuming “their activity is useful and positive for the country”.

The same year the “foreign agents” law was adopted, the United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the biggest donors for the Russian nonprofits halted its activities in the country. Besides, the government lunged at some of the international organizations – Russian office of the Transparency International and bureau of the Nordic Council of Ministers which suspended its work this year were forced to enter the “foreign agents” roster.  

The inclusion of the Dynasty Foundation in the list of the “foreign agents” and its subsequent closure produced a strong public reaction. The organization is the first family nonprofit foundation in Russia. Created by a businessman and scientist Dmitry Zimin it supported talented scientists and educational projects. Mainly, the organization was financed from his private funds. The Foundation gave scholarships and grants to students and young professionals, supported school teachers of exact sciences, organized public lectures, developed a program of short-term visits of foreign scientists to Russia. The Dynasty also financed the “Liberal Mission” Foundation which conducted researches on economic and political issues. Apparently, this was a good reason to consider its activities as “political”. Unexpectedly, several environmental organizations we also included in the Foreign Agents lists.

The law was applied on many organizations promoting human rights and civil society, gender equality, and independent media working in the domains of social protection and assistance to refugees and displaced people. Among them are the prominent human rights center “Memorial” which was originally concentrated on the history of political repressions in the Soviet Union, the famous “Levada – Center”, independent sociological research organization, ” The Committee against Torture”, and “Perm -36”, the founder of Russia’s only museum of the history of political repressions created on the territory of the former Gulag. As the Russian paratroopers were detained in the Eastern Ukraine, “the Saint-Petersburg Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers” which received the complaints from the families of those who were allegedly involved in the conflict, was recognized as a “foreign agent”. The organization claims that it hadn’t received any foreign funding.

Soft power as a threat to a hard power

A person familiar with the political history of Russia can easily notice that the Kremlin on both official and unofficial levels more and more actively uses the Soviet phraseology. The expression “foreign agent” had stuck in ideological memory of a Russian – according to polls this phrase is perceived as the analogy with the terms like “spy”, “enemy”, or “traitor” even among the younger generation. The ”foreign agent” terminology used in the text of the law, thus, clearly functions as a pointer – the enemy can sabotage the country from within.

As the Kremlin began to hunt down “unsuitable” NGOs, some organizations terminated their activities or had to change legal forms. Many do not agree to accept the new “shameful” status and continue to press charges against the Ministry of Justice. Some of the NGOs filed complaints in the European Court of Human Rights. The persecution of the independent non-governmental organizations continues. In May this year the new law was adopted according to which any foreign or international NGO “which threaten the national security” can be recognized as “undesirable” and banned from conducting its activities in Russia. The American National Endowment for Democracy (NED) became the first one in the blacklist. After the law was introduced one of the largest US private nonprofits, The MacArthur Foundation, announced its closure in Russia.

Russia

Russian Aluminium, Health Ministry Announce Ebola Vaccine

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Russian Aluminium (RUSAL), one of the world’s largest aluminium producers, together with the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation, announced the completion of the vaccination against the Ebola virus in the Republic of Guinea. Two thousand people have received the GamEvac-Combi vaccines during the testing programme conducted at the Scientific Diagnostic Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology (SDCEM) in Guinea.

The centre was an initiative of Russian business tycoon, Oleg Deripaska, and was built by RUSAL during the height of the Ebola epidemic in 2015. GamEvac-Combi vaccine was created in the Gamalei Federal Research Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology of the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation. The vaccine is currently in the final round of testing.

“As part of the testing programme, the health of the vaccinated participants and the development of the immunity are monitored for one year. At the end of this period of monitoring, the vaccine will receive international certification making it available for use by the World Health Organisation and other organizations for the purpose of preventing the spread of the disease,” according to media release.

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, instructed the development of the vaccine following a request from the President of the Republic of Guinea Alpha Condé at the end of 2014.

In 2016, the vaccine was revealed during the World Health Assembly where the former WHO Director-General, Margaret Chen, was in attendance. The vaccine was registered in Russia at the end of 2015.

Along with developing the vaccine, RUSAL, as part of the public-private partnership supported by Oleg Deripaska, opened a research centre, an isolation ward and a hospital in Guinea. RUSAL’s commitment to fighting the epidemic was acknowledged by the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, who thanked RUSAL’s shareholder, Oleg Deripaska, for his contribution to the international effort against Ebola.

The strong relationship that RUSAL has established with the Republic of Guinea is something that Oleg Deripaska often speaks about. He recently highlighted RUSAL’s commitment to helping the population of the country hit by the virus; “When the outbreak of the fever came, we made every effort to help”, said Oleg Deripaska.

“Currently the vaccine is administered to the Russian medics and other specialists going to the regions where there is a high risk of Ebola contagion”, said Veronika Skvortsova, the Minister of Health of the Russian Federation. “During the Ebola outbreak, the centre has shown the best results in terms of the number of Guinean persons wholly recovered: 62.5% of the SDCEM patients with a confirmed Ebola fever diagnosis have been successfully treated”.

The advantages of GamEvac-Combi vaccine

The vaccine was developed using a biotechnology method without using the pathogenic Ebola virus. The base of the vaccine is the genetic material of an adenovirus and vesicular canker virus, safe for humans, modified with a gene containing the information about the structure of the GP protein of the Ebola virus.

Pre-clinical and clinical studies have proven the safety of the vaccine and have shown that it stimulates the immune system more efficiently than foreign vaccines. Another important advantage of the vaccine is its more favourable transportation and storage conditions: GamEvac-Combi can be transported and stored at the temperature above -16◦C – and similar foreign vaccines require the temperature of less than – 60 ◦C for storage, which is difficult to implement in the hot African climate.

The SDCEM centre, that will continue to do medical examinations for the Guinean population, is the most advanced and biologically safe facility in the Western Africa. The centre was created in line with all international humanitarian organizations’ recommendations and is equipped with modern medical and laboratory equipment. RUSAL invested more than US$10 million in the construction of the SDCEM.

Currently, SDCEM is the leading centre in the field of investigating and preventing infectious diseases in Guinea. It also serves as the training facility for the national epidemiologists.

RUSAL has been active in Guinea since 2001 being one of the largest foreign investors in the country. In Guinea, RUSAL owns Kindia Bauxite Company (KBC) as well as the bauxite-alumina facility Friguia. RUSAL continues implementing projects to launch the world’s largest bauxite mines Dian-Dian in Boké region.

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Putin, United Russia and the Message

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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On Dec. 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in the plenary meeting of the 18th United Russia party congress, reiterated the key challenges, problems and accomplishments for the nation. The congress delegates identified the challenges and priorities in the party’s work for the coming year.

Putin acknowledged the party’s support during his presidential election campaign, saying it was “a momentous thing shaping the top institution of power” in Russia. This concerns the president, the government, the region – any level, down to the local or municipal one.

Putin further referred to an action plan that was presented in a condensed form in the Executive Order in May 2018 and that set out in national projects drafted by the Government (the majority in the Government are United Russia members) and was supported by legislators (United Russia holds the majority in the State Duma). He pointed to the fact that there would not be any success without United Russia’s backing at the regional and municipal level.

“The United Russia party plays a special role. For a number of years the party has been showing its competence, its ability to make responsible decisions, explain these decisions to the people,” Putin told the party delegates during his address, while acknowledging frankly that there have been pitfalls and problems in the political leadership.

Leadership means making responsible decisions the country needs. This leadership is an enormous resource to achieve dynamic and substantive change that can ensure a radical improvement in the quality of life and greater well-being of the population.

Putin reminded the party meeting that the entire world going through a dramatic situation. In his words: “the world is undergoing a transformation, a very powerful and dynamically evolving transformation, and if we do not get our bearings, if we do not understand what we need to do and how, we may fall behind for good.”

He suggested that United Russia with its tremendous legislative, organisational and human resource potential must fully utilise it and consolidate all of society, in solving development issues, in implementing the nationwide agenda.

Putin told the party delegates never allow any sort of rudeness, arrogance, insolence towards people at any level – at the top level and the lowest, municipal level. This is important because it does the country a disservice, it is unfair to the people and it denigrates the party to the lowest of the low. The public demands fairness, honesty and openness.

What is “society” after all? It is the people. Thus, one key factor here is that people’s opinions and attitudes must necessarily be taken into account. There must be commitment to implementing people’s initiatives, and their initiatives must be used in attaining common goals, especially at the municipal level, according to the Russian leader.

The most crucial thing for a political party is a steady standing of its representatives and that United Russia does not have to fear change but rather work strategically towards making a change for the better.

Putin further asked the delegates to work relentlessly for a free democratic country, development of nationwide tasks, realisation of new ideas and approaches. Discussions and competition, including within the party itself are very efficient tools for solving problems in the interests of the nation. United Russia has to do everything needed to instil both inside the party in particular and in society in general this political culture, an atmosphere of dialogue, trust and cooperation with all political forces of Russia.

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G20 Summit: Looking for Compromise

Natalia Eremina

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The G20 is an important international forum, a meeting place for representatives of the world’s largest economies. Now, we can say that the division into the so-called “developed” and “developing” economies is irrelevant within this forum. Additionally, the G20 generally does, indeed, represent the interests of the global population, since its countries account for over 80 percent of the gross world product and two thirds of the entire population of the planet. It is also important to remember that such venues are very convenient for privately owned businesses, which, through the support of governmental agencies, can get favourable opportunities to hold talks with their foreign partners. Additionally, a rather large number of meetings and talks at G20 summits remains outside the spotlight, but their results confirm the significance of the many unofficial meetings, informal negotiations and talks on the side-lines of the summits. These meetings, which take place in a variety of formats, are vital for understanding the issues that are most important for leading international participants and whether there is consensus among them on the approaches required to resolve these issues. Moreover, as we consider meetings and agreements concluded on the side-lines of G20 summits, we can, to a degree, draw conclusions on the current configuration or re-configuration of international relations.

From the outset, we will note that the importance of G20 summits is gradually growing, even though they started out as meetings of ministers of finance and their initial goal was to formulate a joint response to global financial issues. Today, the summit has transformed into an international venue for discussing issues of global financial and economic policies and other pressing matters of the day. However, economic and financial issues remain significant for G20 discussions.

The summit is also important for the expert and political communities of various countries that assess the prospects of inter-country interactions. Apparently, at the Argentina summit, the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin attracted the greatest interest, but it never happened, since the U.S. President cancelled it at the eleventh hour, which certainly demonstrates the growing tensions in U.S.–Russia relations.

At the same time, the summit is useful, since its function is not to settle bilateral relations, but to develop common approaches that satisfy different states with different economic indicators and representing different political regimes.

G20 summits are convened to discuss several pressing issues proposed by the presiding state.

The summit held in Argentina was devoted to building a consensus for fair and stable development. Face-to-face meetings between heads of state are particularly important for handling the task. The goal of the summit indicates that the global community is aware of the current tectonic shifts in the global economy and in world politics. For a full-scale scale discussion of the problem, four issues were put on the agenda: the future of work and new professions, infrastructure for development, sustainable food future and gender mainstreaming.

Clearly, the G20 is not just a venue for discussing issues that have been defined as key; it is also an opportunity to “compare notes” via different formats “inside” the summit. For instance, we can say that France, Germany, Austria and Italy did not represent themselves or their interests alone, but were also united by their common tasks as EU countries. In addition, as one of the world’s largest economies, the European Union is a member of G20 as a single body. At the present summit, the European Union was represented by the heads of the European Council and the European Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. Similarly, BRICS countries use G20 to discuss issues of their own.

G20 in Implementing Russia’s Strategic Tasks

Russia’s current strategic priority is to take part in the establishment of the concept of a multipolar world and in elaborating new principles of interaction within integration processes in Eurasia. Therefore, special emphasis will invariably be placed on the possibilities for implementing the idea of “integrating integrations” at G20 summits, and this summit was no exception. In particular, special attention was paid to mechanisms for connecting the development of the EAEU with the “One Road – One Belt” strategy. In addition, issues of stepping up cooperation within BRICS are also addressed, and there is an ongoing search for parties interested in bolstering global political and economic stability through the instruments of “integrating integrations,” which entails Russia paying attention to China, India and other Asian partners, as well as the gradual stable growth of Russia’s interests in Latin America.

As for meetings that have the greatest significance for Russia, the key talks for understanding the development of Russia’s foreign policy are the now traditional sessions held with BRICS countries. In addition, a meeting was also held between the heads of state of Russia, India and China (in the RIC format). Objectively, this format could be the most efficient, since interaction between Eurasia’s three largest states is of principal significance for both regional and global security. The dialogue on security issues and collaboration in all areas will be continued at the second Belt and Road Summit in April 2019 that Xi Jinping invited Vladimir Putin to attend.

The President of the Russian Federation was probably one of the most active figures at the present summit. Naturally, he had a meeting with representatives of Argentina. It is all the more important today since the EAEU and MERCOSUR are building up their cooperation potential, and a Memorandum on Cooperation is being prepared. What is more, Russia and Argentina concluded an agreement on nuclear power generation that will allow Russia to start construction of Russian-designed nuclear power plants in Argentina.

The main topic of discussion at the meeting between Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin was the Syrian agenda. Indeed, an exchange of opinions on this question now, when various formats of building up the peace process are being discussed, is of particular importance. In addition, the President of the Russian Federation discussed the current situation in Syria with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also confirmed the significance of the Turkish Stream for the stable and secure development of the economy of Turkey and other states.

The meeting between the President of the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman focused on energy issues, with the two parties agreeing to extend the agreement on cutting oil production.

Vladimir Putin also met with Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, with the Japanese side raising the issue of concluding a peace agreement. For Russia, the issue is not particularly relevant anymore, and at the meeting, the two heads of state agreed to continue active cooperation to increase the level of mutual trust between the two sides.

Of course, a great number of people were interested in the informal conversation between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, who only had time to exchange opinions on the “Kerch Strait incident.” Trump’s refusal to meet with the President of the Russian Federation means a further loss of confidence between the two countries.

On the whole, meetings between heads of state were of particular importance at the summit, since, for instance, the meeting at the level of ministers of foreign affairs was downsized due to the absence of Russian and French ministers of foreign affairs, the U.S. Secretary of State and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

G20: The International Agenda

The so-called Iran nuclear deal has become one of the most crucial problems in international relations. Russia and the European Union have adopted the same stance on this issue.

In addition to economic matters, G20 also tackled the climate change problem and proposed complete and utter compliance with the decisions of the Paris Agreement on climate change. However, significant progress is unlikely after the withdrawal of the United States from the accord.

No less important were the discussions on the problem of terrorism. The G20 countries agreed that their Leaders’ Hamburg Statement on Countering Terrorism needed to be implemented. Incidentally, that statement declared the need to fight terrorism internationally in all its forms and manifestations. However, the current situation is extremely complicated, and discussions concerning Syria confirm this fact.

The influence of the European Union and the United Kingdom on the international security agenda and their claim that Russia is the main disrupting force are just as worrying. The European Union, in the person of Donald Tusk, sought to expand the summit’s agenda with a discussion of Russia’s so-called aggression against Ukraine, which he likened to the problem of trade wars. However, despite the suggestion put forward by both Tusk and the United Kingdom that the G20 discuss Russia’s allegedly impermissible conduct and use some instruments against it, the proposal failed to gain traction. It say a lot that the “Kerch Strait incident” did not overshadow any of the meetings held by the President of the Russian Federation at the G20 Summit.

The attention of international actors was also focused on the meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, who failed to achieve a consensus on economic interaction, but agreed to a 90-day moratorium on introducing increased tariffs. Accordingly, special hopes are pinned on this interim measure. Clearly, China will not make the unilateral concessions that the United States is calling upon it to do, appealing instead to the idea of a compromise.

Results of the G20 Summit

While the summit’s final declaration does not contain specific figures and objectives for the most sensitive issues on the agenda, it does offer mechanisms for their resolution. In this respect, the summit did not turn out to be a breakthrough in resolving pressing issues. However, it demonstrated that no issue will ever be resolved if the parties abandon dialogue and compromise.

The results of Russia’s efforts at the summit include the signing of a large set of bilateral agreements between public and private bodies. The summit also demonstrated that Russia is actively and successfully stepping up cooperation with Latin American countries and enhancing its multi-format collaboration with the BRICS nations, particularly with China and India.

It is both curious and telling that the media was most interested in the meetings held by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump. However, we should mention the different approaches of these heads of state. For example, the President of the United States demonstrated that his country was not especially interested in following the established rules and was far more concerned about retaining the right to develop new rules of the game independently of other participants in international relations. Meanwhile, China’s and Russia’s leaders spoke about cooperation and compromise both in their joint meetings held in various formats and in their conversations with other heads of state. Additionally, the fact that the world is changing rapidly was recognized at the summit, meaning that the rules of the game can and should be changed and that new rules need to be formulated, but only through collaboration and compromise.

The heads of state also appealed to the IMF and the World Bank to work towards improving the economic situation in various countries and increasing the transparency of their work in interacting with states. This should help reduce sovereign debt and ensure that the recommendations offered by international financial institutions in individual states are implemented more effectively.

In addition, the leaders of the G20 countries concluded that responses need to be developed to current and future challenges in the development of the WTO and attempts should be made to avoid excessive contradictions, sanctions and tariff restrictions. The parties also agreed that the WTO needs to be reformed for it to work more efficiently. This aspect will be considered at the next summit in Japan.

Interestingly, virtually all countries supported multi-laterality, confirmed their commitment to the rules of international trade and agreed that efforts to overcome crisis trends in the global economy should be stepped up in order to avoid a repetition of the 2008 global crisis. The final declaration states that the global economic growth is increasingly less synchronized between countries, which entails risks to economic security, particularly given geopolitical tensions and financial unpredictability. To overcome this problem, it is important to step up interaction and increase trust among all parties in international relations.

The G20 states also announced that it was necessary to continue joint work on studying the impact that the digitalization of economy has on the global tax system, which needs to be adapted to current conditions by 2019 (final decisions on the matter will be elaborated and published in 2020).

Thus, the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires once again demonstrated the significance of the mechanisms of dialogue and achieving compromise based on constant information exchange between countries. The compromise-based approach was officially adopted as the foundation of all agreements, and was the leitmotif of the event. Given the circumstances, an increasing number of states recognize their significance as participants in international relations and, with each passing year, they strive to more forcefully state their stance on the most sensitive issues. Clearly, the Russian Federation wholeheartedly welcomes this trend.

Therefore, it should be noted that the recent summit in Argentina demonstrated that the G20 is just that – a group of countries – and not a political club. This fact increases its significance as an organization exhibiting a multilateral, multi-format and pluralistic nature of today’s international relations. Active discussions in such a format confirm the relevancy of multipolarity and the current processes of reconfiguring the world. In such circumstances, Russia can most fully implement its interests and convey its vision of international matters. An analysis of the volume of news reports in the European media is quite telling in that it proves that EU journalists were primarily interested not so much in meetings of heads of EU states, but in meetings with the participation of the leaders of Russia, China and the United States, meaning that EU representatives were running second in the newsfeeds of many news agencies. Thus, the results of the summit allow us to state that there has been a significant increase in the international community’s attention on Russia.

First published in our partner RIAC

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