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Russia-Europe relations: is “reset” possible?

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On 5th of October in Budapest (Hungary) will be held an international conference «Russia and Europe: Topical Issues of Contemporary International Journalism». The conference is organized by the International Affairs magazine with support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Federal Agency for Press and Mass Media of the Russian Federation. The main topics to be discussed this year are: «Russia-Europe relations: is “reset” possible? Role of media», «Revival of neo-Nazism: analysis of media technologies used by interested parties. Creating a Counterstrategy» and «Media of Russia and Europe. View from the inside».

OganesyanAGThe conference is held annually in different countries. List of participants traditionally included directors of European media, politicians, diplomats, political and media scientists, management of international media companies. The first version of the conference took place in November 2011 in Paris and has proved the importance of collaboration between Russian and European media. It received status of a topical annual event with the main goal to boost cooperation between Russian and European media.Today we speak with Mr. Armen Oganesyan, chairman of the conference and editor-in-chief of the magazine International Affairs.

Why is it important for the press to strengthen relations between Russia and the European Union?

I believe your question actually potentially contain 2 questions: a) Why is it important for Russia and European Union to maintain strong relations?; b) Why should media be the facilitator of the dialogue?

To respond to the first question, let’s just look at history, both cultural and historical.  Going back to the 18th century and beyond, Russia has invariably been part of both the intra-European and extra-European dialogue. As we fast-forward to the 21st century, European Union is facing a number of internal and externally imposed crises.  Just to enumerate some of them: demographic squeeze; internal and external migration; financial shocks and responses; terrorism, both externally exposed and penetrated into the national fabric; climate change; many others.  I cannot fathom how a comprehensive lasting solution to the issues I’ve mentioned, as well as to innumerable others, can be attained without participation of Russia.

Now, to answer the second question, let’s look at the role, a high-level purpose of media.  We believe that media should essentially be a mirror, an instrument that exposes basic truths.  We don’t believe we should affect the historical flow but we do believe we should make the facts, ideas and opinions known and promulgated.

When the responses to the two parts of your question are combined, I believe we can derive the mission we undertake: using the unique skills of media, fully explore the ideas and opinions underpinning the historical and of-the-moment relationship between the European Union and Russia.

For example, look at just two of a number of round tables we’ll conduct: “Russia-Europe relations: is a reset possible? Role of media” and “Media of Russia and Europe. View from the inside.”  They aim to exactly achieve what I have written about: take the long, almost historical view of relations between the parties and explore the role media can play in the discussion.

What is your opinion on anti-Russian media propaganda?

It would be primitive to say that there is a single center that coordinates anti-Russian propaganda, even though in the Cold War period there were centers that provided stereotypes. There are such centers today, and there are experts who work for them. People talk of censorship. As for Ukraine and Crimea, each and every one are free to interpret them as they see it fit. But journalists are not free to express their opinions, yet the way the media spoke about these complicated issues can be described as nothing but obviously biased. The guilt here should be evenly spread between politicians and the journalists who listen to them. Today in Russia exist around 80.000 media organizations each having its own different opinion. Radio-stations Echo of Moscow and Serebryany Dozhd are the most outspoken critics of the official foreign policy line in relation to the West. There is no uniformity: colors are different and each and every one is free to choose a channel or an information niche to his/her liking. Is there anything similar in Europe? There is no such variety in Europe especially when it comes to Russia.

What actions should be taken to resist the false information?

To fight fake news one must go back to basics, namely invest into the fact checking group. These are the people left on the sidelines by the rise of social media and the financial squeeze on traditional media. Many publications have scaled down in this area. Well, now we can see that professional fact checkers are indispensable to prevent proliferation of untrue information 

How can a journalist remain non-biased in the modern world?

I believe the best thing a journalist can do to present information objectively is to be well informed in a broad sense of the expression. Yes, the journalist needs to dig into the story, to interview all sides and to ask difficult question. But, I think, a journalist must also see the story in the context of historical and social backgrounds. Only then can truly meaningful coverage emerge

Why is the conference going to be in Budapest?

As I’ve stated above, we aim to explore the opinions of the Russia-EU relationship.  It becomes almost intuitively correct to hold such a conference in a city that is somewhat between the philosophical positions of Russia and EU, cities that can easily comprehend the positions of each side.  We have always held that view and our previous conferences took places in ideologically similar cities to Budapest: Vienna, Berlin, Bratislava. To my view, Budapest, is if i may say so, a highly “dialogical”, open city, nothing to say about traditional hospitality

How can the cultural connection between Russia and Hungary be strengthen?

Older and middle-aged Russians are more familiar with Hungarian history and culture. From my childhood I remember reading well-translated Hungarian folk tales. Several times I re-read the novel Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, admiring the legendary captain István Dobo. Hungarian literature and, of course, the poetry of Sándor Petőfi have been and remain in the standard university curriculum.

In general, Hungarian culture is close to Russian. Histories of Hungary and Russia are full of dramatic events that have challenged the very existence of our people, in turn influencing respective cultures. Russian and Hungarian cultures belong to the world, not only to Europe. However your question is related to the dialogue between the cultures. It seems to me that not enough is being done to popularize Hungarian language in Russia and Russian in Hungary. Post-Soviet generations are poorly acquainted with the best examples of Russian and Hungarian cultures. I think that we need to do more on both sides to support individual and collaborative projects with the aim of building bridges between our countries that would help renew an active dialogue between the cultures.

Role of the “International Affairs” magazine worldwide

Founded in 1922 as a weekly of the USSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and re-established as a monthly edition in 1954, International Affairs is a journal of Russia’s Foreign Ministry covering a broad range of subjects in international politics, diplomacy, and global security. Today’s International Affairs is among the world’s key forums for discussions of international policy issues. The English-language version is distributed in the US, digests are published in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Chinese and Arabic. The journal is available to individual and corporate subscribers in Russia and 150 other countries.

International Affairs offers a round-up and competent analysis of Russia’s and the world’s most pressing political and economic problems. Extensive connections within Russia’s Foreign Ministry reinforce the journal’s ability to serve as a credible and well-informed source of information. Contributors to International Affairs comprise a unique team of diplomats and experts from Russian and international politics, research, business, and policy analysis communities.

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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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