Connect with us

Russia

Soft power as a threat to a hard power

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading
Comments

Russia

Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

Published

on

Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

Continue Reading

Russia

Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

Published

on

Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

Continue Reading

Russia

Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

Published

on

The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Europe36 mins ago

Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country

The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to...

Africa3 hours ago

West Africa: Extreme poverty rises nearly 3 per cent due to COVID-19

Extreme poverty in West Africa rose by nearly three per cent in 2020, another fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, a...

Middle East5 hours ago

UAE schoolbooks earn high marks for cultural tolerance, even if that means praising China

An Israeli NGO gives the United Arab Emirates high marks for mandating schoolbooks that teach tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and engagement...

Defense7 hours ago

What is driving Russia’s security concerns?

The current discussions between Russia and NATO pivot on Russia’s requirement for the Alliance to provide legally binding security guarantees:...

Finance9 hours ago

Global Policy-makers Face Complex Set of Divergent Economic Challenges in Coming Year

From the impact of a new COVID variant to continued inflation, governments will continue to face economic challenges in 2022....

Economy13 hours ago

Can e-commerce help save the planet?

If you have logged onto Google Flights recently, you might have noticed a small change in the page’s layout. Alongside...

Africa Today17 hours ago

1.5 million children lack treatment for severe wasting in Eastern and Southern Africa

At least 1.5 million children are not receiving life-saving treatment for severe wasting in Eastern and Southern Africa, warned the United Nations...

Trending