I have been working on several public diplomacy-related papers over the past couple of weeks, one of which is the "culmination" of a semester-long project analyzing Russia's PD efforts with my dear colleague, Laura. I should say, it was very interesting to be working on it, while simultaneously following Medvedev on his "Charm-the-World" spree. Not only did Russia manage to make good use of "tragedy diplomacy", as in the cases of the Moscow bombings and the Kaczyński catastrophe, but it also had its leader actively engaging with the foreigners, be it the Europeans (in Vyborg), the Americans (here, in DC), the Latin Americans (he visited Argentina, and is currently attending the BRIC Summit in Brazil), and, certainly, the world in general (in Prague).
But all these efforts can also be said to remain at the level of traditional diplomacy, as although Medvedev was directly talking to the people, most of his actions were limited to the context of "high-level diplomacy". Just as always, real improvement in image and perceptions will need time to take root, if at all.
As Laura and I were working on the Russia project, two major points came up: the ever-persisting "Cold War" image of Russia that is still very prevalent in the West, and (perhaps as a response) Russia's increasingly blunt attempts to re-brand itself as a "New", progressive country. A quick look at Russia's Pavillion at China Expo, or the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics preparations will certainly attest to that. And yet, it seems that no matter how hard Russia tries, it will be years, if not decades, for it to really acquire credibility and enjoy the trust of the Western leaders and publics (well, a discussion of Russia's PD efforts - and how many of them do not work - would be appropriate here, but that will come in a later post... perhaps).
All this was more than just obvious in some of the responses to the events in Kyrgyzstan. Some were quick to blame Russia in masterminding the so-called "revolution" as a deliberate act to undermine the U.S. influence in the region. This can very well be a possibility, which should not be rejected outright; however, this claim ignores the very reasonable possibility of the existence of a pro-Russian majority in the country. Such claims also ignore - time and again - the simple fact that Russia, which clearly does not enjoy the benefit of having substantial "Soft Power" in the West, is still seen as the preferred foreign "partner" by many in the former Soviet countries.
It so happens that I had to read quite a lot on the concept of "hegemony" as well, and I could not think of a better term to describe Russia's relationship with its immediate region (and the so-called "sphere of influence"), since hegemony, unlike imperialism, does not rely on brute force or dominance. Instead, it is an "opinion-moulding activity" which brings about "consensual order" (sounds somehow all too familiar, although the terminology is a little different). Here, I should also point out an article by Tsygankov, providing a wonderful analysis of the Russian influence in the CIS area, and tracing it back to a single, most important need shared by all of these countries (including Russia itself): stability.
Indeed, Russia's power in the region is by no means limited to the "soft" aspect (there is no denying that). However, it can also be argued that the latter is way much more significant in Russia's "smart power" equation for the region. For example, this 2008-2009 Gallup poll conducted in the CIS is fairly revealing:
Quite obviously the percentage of people thinking that it is more important to have closer ties with Russia even if it hurts the relationship with the U.S. far outweighs the percentage of those who believe the opposite. The only notable exceptions are Georgia and Azerbaijan (for quite obvious reasons), and yet, even in their cases, there is clear preference for Russia. (By the way, I am quite surprised by the results in Armenia. What happened to the much-acclaimed "Complementarity"?)
This poll, then, not only shows how Russia has been successful in maintaining its hegemony in the region, but can also indicate why it is increasingly difficult for the United States to take over that role in those countries (especially if its efforts go well beyond mere public diplomacy). The fact that two-thirds of those polled (granted, one has faith in Gallup's credibility) in Kyrgyzstan would prefer Russia over the U.S., if they were to choose one, is quite telling in itself; but when coupled with all the "democracy" hypocrisy and the dire economic situation, this factor can perhaps shed a little more light on why the Kyrgyz were all too willing (just like the Ukrainians) to embrace Russia again. Bashing Russia as a mere "imperialist" is, therefore, a misperception. Instead, it Russia should be seen as making effective use of its smart power.
Of course, Russia's public diplomacy (writ large) in the region consists of multiple layers and dimensions, the language arguably being the most prominent of them, but it is clearly appropriate for its audiences there (the centuries-long relationship did affect both sides, in terms of learning and accommodation). Engaging with the U.S., however, is much more difficult for what seem to be two major reasons: the fact that the Americans are all too aware of and averse to giving in to Russian influence (no matter how "soft"), and the assumption on the part of Russians that the same PD approach that works in the CIS could work in the U.S., too (even though, with an altered content: see RT).
Medvedev has put a good start. Yet, Russia still has a lot to learn, especially in its "New" capacity.