Why Is Russia Not Stepping In to Protect its Compatriots Abroad?
By dismissing the possibility of sanctions against countries that adopted discriminatory measures against their Russian-speaking minorities, Putin essentially rejected aggressive foreign policy.
On June 7, 2018, Vladimir Putin confirmed on live television that Russia does not intend to enact economic and political sanctions against Latvia in response to its elimination of Russian-speaking schools, making clear the Kremlin’s unwillingness to protect the rights of its citizens abroad. Calling any punitive measures counterproductive, Putin suggested these would more likely harm Russians living in Latvia. He did, however, add that the Latvian government should be ashamed for its actions.
This position was echoed by Russia’s special representative on international cultural cooperation, Mikhail Shvydkoy. In an interview with the Latvian Segondya (today) newspaper, Shvydkov suggested that education is Latvia’s internal affair and is thus not to be dictated by bilateral relations. This became an important signal for the Latvian government, which is currently conducting an extreme right-wing policy toward the Russian linguistic minority.
Both statements are of course rational and expected. They follow a string of statements and policies we have seen over recent months, where the Russian leader seeks to show to the West that sanctions are not only ineffective, but harmful to both sides of the conflict. Also, Moscow is starting to view its compatriot policy (at least temporarily) as not something worth damaging relations with Washington and Brussels over. The Russian compatriots movement (there are at least three international umbrella organizations — International Council of the Russian Compatriots, the World Coordination Board of the Compatriots at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia and the European Russian Alliance) living abroad has not solved any of the main objectives set 18 years ago, such as strengthening economic and political influence of the Russian Federation and improving relations with foreign countries.
The movement has gradually become a complicating factor in the relations with Russia’s neighbors, because countries with large Russian-speaking minorities are starting to perceive it as a “fifth column” that is misleading Russia’s interests. At the same time, they accuse Russia of using the movement of compatriots to undermine the state security of these countries. These statements are often not true, but many, for example the Baltic countries, are happy to support this myth for their domestic political purposes. Given that Russia seeks to gain an equal standing with the West on the world arena, this is proving counterproductive.
On the other hand, the negative reaction of compatriots themselves to the statements of Putin and Shvydkoy was in itself logical and natural. In some cases, there was genuine astonishment. Just recently, Russia had imposed sanctions against Turkey after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian military aircraft over Syria. There was no talk of counter-productiveness — the sanctions actually encouraged Turkey to come to the negotiating table, proving their effectiveness. Hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers in the post-Soviet space clearly do not consider themselves less worthy of protection than Russia’s interests in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, representatives of Russian compatriots in Latvia have recently visited the Russian State Duma, where they asked to impose sanctions for violation of their rights, with Russian parliamentarians expressing their support.
The compatriots also understand that Shvydkoy, in light of his education and position, must realize that national minority issues are human rights issues after all; they are not considered internal affairs of any state, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted back in 1948, and the 2010 OSCE Declaration Towards a Security Community, and should not be regulated only by bilateral relations. Russia is well aware of this (the Jackson-Vanik amendment is particularly relevant), having been made to discuss for the past 70 years the rights of its national minorities, from Jews to Crimean Tatars, which the West refused to consider to be an internal affair.
Now, Russian compatriots abroad were clearly shown that there are boundaries beyond which the Kremlin will not go to protect their rights. Negotiations, work of international organizations will resume, but there will be no acts of direct economic pressure. In fact, this was pretty much what Riga, Kiev and many other post-Soviet capitals were hoping to achieve. After all, the worst-case scenario for many of these countries would be if Moscow followed the example of Hungary, which is defending the rights of its compatriots in Transcarpathia, through other means.
Thus, Latvian and Ukrainian politicians who pioneered so-called school reforms in their countries can take a breath for the time being. National minority schools in Ukraine will be shut down, and education in the Russian language will be substantially reduced in Latvia, where the reform has a more pronounced Russophobic character. In the Baltic states, the quota for foreign language education extends to Russian schools, but not to schools teaching in EU languages. Russian private schools also came under restrictions, which constitutes as an intrusion in the sphere of business.
By dismissing the possibility of sanctions against countries that adopted these discriminatory measures, Putin essentially rejects aggressive foreign policy. It is obvious that Latvian and Ukrainian school reforms could be easily used as an excuse for further expansion, which was actually expected and feared in the West. Now, the Russian president has reassured the West, having condemned these actions but avoiding any direct punitive measures.
We Prefer Diplomacy
So what are the reasons that prompted the Russian leader and his representative to make a statement that discouraged the compatriot activists? First, Putin once again emphasized that Russia rejects the policy of sanctions as ineffective. Russia, he says, resorts to these measures only in response to Western sanctions but never initiates them, preferring diplomacy at the negotiating table. The aforementioned sanctions imposed by Russia on Turkey were rather an exception to the rule.
Second, this statement most likely indicates that the area of vital Russian interests abroad today is limited to Ukraine and Syria. Other foreign policy interests have most likely been given lower priority and can be easily turned into bargaining chips in negotiations with the West. The Russian leader, in effect is saying to his Western partners: “Let’s agree that you take into account our interests in Crimea, Syria and southeastern Ukraine, and we take into account your interests in other parts of the world, including where our compatriots live. Are you afraid that we will take active steps in the Baltics? We are showing that we are not going to and look forward to a constructive response from your side.”
We can assume that such a position will have far-reaching consequences. First, while the world leaders in the United States and the European Union are unlikely to agree to such a compromise now — given that at the G7 summit in Canada they reiterated their intention to further adhere to the sanctions policy toward Russia — the overall situation in the world may deescalate as a result of change in Moscow’s position.
Second, of course no one in Ukraine and Latvia will be ashamed of their discriminatory policy toward their Russian-speaking residents, although Putin hopes otherwise. Therefore, after turning the other cheek, Russia and Russians abroad (and in Eastern Europe, these two terms are rarely separate) should expect these policies to continue. Latvia is already intending to shut down all Russian higher education institutions in the country, which currently have several thousand students. The Visu Latvijai (All to Latvia) party, which is currently part of the ruling coalition, is also planning to shut down Russian kindergartens.
The situation is more or less the same in Ukraine, although there all non-Ukrainian schools have become targets. This, of course, famously prompted Hungary to step in and protect the interests of its minority, after having invested heavily into Hungarian schools in Transcarpathian region, which so far is discouraging the efforts of Ukrainian nationalists. Hungary promises to impose sanctions against Ukraine and blocks contacts between Ukraine and NATO.
Third, what happens to the Russian linguistic minority in Latvia and Ukraine is most likely a pilot project in the post-Soviet space. If it is successful and safe for these countries, then there is every reason to believe that it will be applied to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and everywhere else. Therefore, Russia will have to reconcile not only the local problems of Russian speakers in Eastern Europe, but the powerful elimination of Russian cultural presence in the entire post-Soviet space.
Historians and political scientists know what this means: It is not so much the Russian culture that is displaced but Russia itself, and not just from the sphere of education. Moreover, it is to be expected that in the course of this process, the activity and popularity of various kinds of right-wing radical groups and parties, which de facto impose their policies on the ruling political elite, will dramatically increase.
If this happens, it will automatically put an end to the idea of a Russkiy mir — Russian world — at least in its current form. But this isn’t something that Russia is prepared to accept. In any case, the Russian compatriots movement increasingly resembles a “white elephant” — hard to keep, but a pity to dispose of. Sooner or later there will have to be a choice or a massive reform of the entire project.
The compatriots movement did not become the catalyst of Russian economic influence abroad, as the Huaqiao did for China. It did not bear the same results as the francophone movement did for France, where the goal wasn’t to cultivate a French population abroad, but to spread French language and literature among the non-French. Neither did it become a catalyst of political power for Russia, as today it risks forming the image of Russians in the West as a fifth column — more influential Russians have recently been punished by sanctions and asset freezes. The only effective direction here is the legal protection of Russian-speakers abroad — a sphere that most likely will remain the same.
At the same time, the compatriots movement is not cheap for the Russian budget, and now, with Russia fighting Western sanctions following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, is not the time to throw money to the wind. As already mentioned, it has become an irritating factor abroad. To some extent, the movement resembles the Communist International (Comintern) created by Lenin as a tool for a world revolution in 1918. It was dissolved in 1943, replaced by a system of meetings of communist party leaders. At that time, Comintern became a large obstacle in establishing decent relations with the allies during World War II.
Abandoned and Deceived
Meanwhile, the compatriots themselves, especially in the aforementioned countries, are increasingly feeling abandoned and deceived. There is a growing feeling of betrayal by Russia, which many think “talks a lot, but does nothing to protect the rights of compatriots.” Among them there is disappointment in the Russian authorities, despite the fact that the majority of Russian citizens living abroad voted for Putin in the March elections. Accordingly, the idea of the Russian world is losing its popularity in the Kremlin as a whole.
We may well see, in a few years’ time, Russian-speaking communities in Eastern Europe resembling something similar to their counterparts in the US and Israel, most of which categorically reject the very term Russian compatriot, emphasizing that they are Israelis and Americans of Russian origin. Of course, this can happen only on the condition that the authorities of the post-Soviet countries like Ukraine and the Baltics dial down their Russophobic regimes, which they built with the tacit consent of the US and the EU.
If not, these countries will inherit a serious problem in the form of a split society, infected with cultural racism, which has gradually replaced the “traditional” racism in Europe. Let’s not forget that Soviet Jews, who lost their language, religion and culture but preserved their Jewish identity, above all, thanks to the tough policy of state anti-Semitism that existed in the USSR from the late 1940s and well into the 1980s.
Therefore, the crisis of the idea of a Russian world is most likely inevitable under the current political conditions. This idea might acquire a completely different character and take the form of cultural and educational projects abroad. Perhaps under these conditions, it would be more welcome abroad. Yes, the Russian Federation will certainly continue to protect the rights of the Russian linguistic minorities around the world, primarily on international platforms and in bilateral relations. But in modern conditions these are ineffective. Therefore, the Russian world outside of Russia will change.
There is a fourth consequence of this new policy toward Russian compatriots. Russia is gradually becoming the only country in the world where the Russian language and culture are guaranteed state support and development. Indirectly and not at once, this will contribute to the gradual revival of the Russian national idea, which is currently marginalized by the international domestic policy that is currently the basis of a multi-ethnic Russia. This calls for a closer look at the Russian right-wing radicals, who today represent a miserable sight thanks to Putin’s efforts. Given the almost absolute disappointment in the Western project among Russians, in the conditions of anti-Russian sentiments abroad and the displacement of Russian education and culture from post-Soviet states, the nationalistic project may well prove attractive to many.
It is a safe bet that all of the above would become a reality, unless the West hears Moscow’s signal about a constructive dialogue and takes advantage of it. What if they don’t? Putin is a smart and experienced politician to underestimate the risks. Therefore, if the call for talks and compromises sent to the West on June 7, along with other similar signals — at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in May, during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, during Putin’s visit to Vienna in June — is not heard, Russia’s position may change yet again.
A peace dove could be quickly transformed into a war hawk, as has been the case repeatedly. If Moscow is convinced that the “hand of friendship” is rejected and it must work out another strategy, the vector of Russian foreign policy may change. And there is a certain probability that these changes will affect the attitude toward compatriots living abroad who have always been an instrument of this policy.
We probably have several months left in reserve. The transformation to a more aggressive foreign policy does not, as a rule, occur during major sporting events like the FIFA World Cup and economic forums. Moscow will finish this season in mid-September, after the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok comes to an end. Then, it would be worth monitoring an end to Moscow’s current thaw. In the meantime, right-wing radicals in the post-Soviet space can take a breath of hope and resume their policy toward the Russian-speaking minorities.
*[Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]