Russia’s people diplomacy in the Middle East

The major weapon in the current Russian diplomatic arsenal is the federal agency Rossotrudnichestvo.

A spectator watches Sukhoi Su-30SM jet fighters of the Sokoly Rossii (Falcons of Russia) aerobatic team perform during the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow (photo credit: REUTERS)
A spectator watches Sukhoi Su-30SM jet fighters of the Sokoly Rossii (Falcons of Russia) aerobatic team perform during the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russia’s military involvement in Syria marks its new pivotal role that is secured by hard power; however, its soft power is lagging behind. The latest Zogby Research Services survey highlighted that the majority of Arabs hold Russian support for Syrian President Bashar Assad to be a key factor for the conflict’s escalation. Russia’s stance with Shi’ite Iran in Syria also threatens to alienate the regional Sunni majority. In response, the Kremlin has decided to reintroduce the former Soviet soft power card of people’s diplomacy by enhancing humanitarian cooperation through state-sponsored organizations and increased number of scholarships to study in Russia.
The major weapon in the current Russian diplomatic arsenal is the federal agency Rossotrudnichestvo.
It was established in 2008 by a presidential decree and is a direct inheritor of the Union of Soviet Friendship Societies (USFS), an organization that remained a Soviet ideological tool throughout the Cold War era. The agency’s link to the USFS and its importance for the promotion of the country’s soft power today was acutely highlighted by the lavish celebration of its 90th anniversary. The event gathered together 5,000 guests from over 100 countries, as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Rossotrudnichestvo is granted full authority to nurture cultural ties as a strategy to project the country’s soft power abroad. Its approach is based on promoting the Russian language, working directly with other Kremlin-funded organizations and major state corporations, as well as carrying out assistance with international development across the Middle East.
For instance, Russia’s major state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, seeking to build nuclear power plants all across the MENA region, organized an event in September 2015 in partnership with Rossotrudnichestvo to assert its positive image.
The quid pro quo principle is at the core of the agency’s work. It waives visas for many invitees to visit Russia, including journalists, covers all the necessary fees and helps perspective applicants without any background in Russian to get matriculated into a Russian university. In return, it depicts Russia as benevolent and progressive nation, which image is distorted worldwide by the biased Western narrative.
It mainly operates through the regional chain of offices of Russian language and culture across the region. To date Russia has active offices in major Middle East nations including Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and even Palestine with more countries to follow in the upcoming years. By various estimates there are 1.5 million people in the MENA region who speak Russian. Therefore, these centers play a vital role in further promoting the language and projecting the country’s soft power.
However, Russia’s efforts and approach are not matching the Soviet results. For instance, the Soviets were developing a program for teaching Russian as a foreign language with the help of the top Soviet philologists and their approach was highly scientific.
It is unlikely that Rossotrudnchestvo is applying similar scientific methods, instead relying solely on foreign policy instruments.
In fact, the agency is widely criticized for mismanagement and inefficiency within Russia. There are even calls to reform it, as its inefficiency is becoming more evident to the current Russia political elite. For instance, the agency’s budget for the promotion of Russian language abroad equals two billion rubles – a hefty sum in times when 22 million Russians are living in poverty.
Education is another sphere that is a part of the Russian people’s diplomacy strategy. The Soviet Union was once considered to be the third destination for studying abroad after the United States and France. Many leaders of the Middle East once attended Soviet educational establishments, among them Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the sixth president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The previous glory of the Soviet education inspires Russia’s current plans to attract more international students. The Russian government is planning to invest $60m. in bringing more foreign students to the country by 2019. By allocating a countless number of scholarships to foreign students the officials are hoping that graduates one day will reach prominent positions in their home countries.
Interestingly, Russian language skills might get lost over the years but acceptance of the Russian worldview and its anti-Western role-modeling will survive within the alumni mindset.
Russia is also seeking to maintain its alumni as a cohesive group. Earlier last year there were calls for creating an organization for the Soviet and Russian alumni all across the Middle East. By various estimates there are more than 200,000 alumni of Soviet and Russian universities residing currently in the Middle East and North Africa: 100,000 in Syria, 40,000 in Yemen, 30,000 in Libya, 15,000 in Jordan and 10,000 in Egypt.
The Russian strategy is quite unique in contrast to the Western approach. It is much less competitive and picks up students without background in Russian or funds to study in the Western nations, but who are strongly motivated. In many ways, the Russian approach consists of bringing talented and poor students to Russia, equipping them with education and sending back to their home countries to see what happens next.
The author is an international politics researcher who specializes in the Middle East and Russia. He has worked and studied in Russia for many years. He has also spent part of his career studying the Middle East while living in several countries of the Arabian Gulf. He holds a degree with distinction in foreign service from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.