The Global Russian World project would unite not only compatriots but all Russophiles on a global scale. This project should be based not on political loyalty or ideology but on the cultural and linguistic self-identification of people who want to feel part of the great culture of Leo Tolstoy and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
What stands out most about your first year as the head of the Federal Agency for the CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Cultural Cooperation?
My first year in this position was bound to be special considering this is the first time I’ve led a federal agency. It has been a unique, incomparable experience. While this is quite a specialized area – foreign cultural ties, compatriots abroad and cooperation in the CIS – I’ve dealt with such issues during my career in the Foreign Ministry, the Government and the State Duma. So, I did not have any problems adapting and I got straight to work.
This year also stands out for the close attention given by our leaders, politicians, the public, the media and experts to what’s known as “soft power.” Many associate it with the agency I lead, and I hope that interest in this issue has something to do with my agency’s work.
But it is also necessary to understand the high expectations that national leaders and society have for us. We are doing our best to live up to these expectations, but unfortunately, there is often a gap between our plans and resources. Put simply, we have lots of ideas but not enough money to implement them. During the past year we laid the foundations for full-scale engagement in 2014. Now we have to wait for the results.
What can Russia offer to those who decide to stay in their new homeland? What kinds of support for our compatriots are the most important? What do they expect from Russia?
Our compatriots abroad face very different circumstances depending on where they live, so taking a single approach to all of them doesn’t work. Some had to leave against their will, others chose to leave voluntarily and still others (and we’re talking about millions of people) woke up one day in a different country, like after the signing of the Belovezh Accords.
Our compatriots have different needs, circumstances and plans, but I think all of them are entitled to support from Russia and to remain in contact with their historic homeland. We can offer them different kinds of support – political, organizational, legal, humanitarian and financial. We are providing such support already.
Our agency is taking part in the program to support compatriots in 2012-2014. But the main burden of this work is shouldered by the Foreign Ministry. Up to now our agency has been in charge of meeting only the cultural needs of our compatriots. Last year we initiated the modification of this system and the government is now preparing a resolution that will delegate responsibilities between the Foreign Ministry and our agency and allocate the necessary funds.
However, first and foremost, our compatriots should self-organize. The Russian state can most effectively support established agencies that bring together large numbers of our compatriots. Otherwise, instead of partnership this support would amount to social welfare – expectation of legal or material aid in difficult circumstances by people who have no interest in maintaining connections with their compatriots or Russia itself. That said, Russia can and must defend the interests of compatriots abroad as other states do. It must protect their political and humanitarian rights and freedoms in accordance with the fundamental documents of the UN and the Council of Europe. Immigrants from Russia and the USSR should not be treated as outcasts that are punished for old grievances or used to settle old historic scores. Support is rendered by the Foreign Ministry, the special fund created to protect the rights of compatriots abroad and, last but not least, by our agency.
Why do some residents of Latvia and Estonia have no citizenship to this day? What do you think about dual citizenship (Russia plus the country of residence) for our compatriots?
The lack of citizenship in Latvia and Estonia is an unsightly phenomenon in modern Europe that is the result of purely political and ideological circumstances. I’m entirely convinced that full-scale integration (not to be confused with assimilation) of Russians in local societies in Latvia and Estonia does not bear any political, cultural or ethnic risks for these countries. Their Russian speakers have made their choice – the majority wants to live in these countries and contribute to them. That said, they are exercising their legal right to national identity and contact with their historic homeland, their culture and language.
This issue has remained unsettled for more than two decades – an unseemly amoun t of time even by a historical yardstick. By delaying its resolution under artificial pretexts the authorities of these Baltic countries are only making it worse. People do not want to leave and will not accept not having rights. Will the nation of Latvia and Estonia be any stronger as a result of this attitude to Russians? Some are accusing Russia of having a “fifth column” that could be used to fuel ethnic strife in those countries, but I’m convinced that Russia could not do as much as the local authorities have already done to make the Russians in these countries feel negatively about the powers that be.
As for dual citizenship, there are many pros and cons. For many, dual citizenship would resolve numerous cultural, social and even everyday problems. For some this is an opportunity to receive additional protection from one more country with which they are not connected by anything. It is hard to find a universal formula, but I think dual citizenship should be introduced as it provides help (and in some cases salvation) for many people. I think many current processes, such as growing integration in the CIS and measures to advance visa-free travel with the EU, will help remove many problems that are currently resolved by dual citizenship.
Can one be loyal to one’s country of residence while maintaining one’s ethnic identity?
I think this is the main difference between the political, legal and cultural spheres, which are of equal importance to every person. Loyalty to one’s country of residence and living by its laws do not mean rejecting one’s national roots and language. In other words, the state has the right to insist that a driver obey traffic rules but cannot demand that he or she cease to be a Russian (Tatar, Chechen or Polish…)
In fact, this is the essence of international documents on the rights of ethnic minorities, which demand that democracies with ethnic minorities should guarantee the rights for its non-titular citizens. By deciding to live in a particular country, a person makes a conscious decision to assume the rights and responsibilities to the country of residence. That said, he or she has the right and the choice to preserve their ethnic identity for themselves and their families and the state should guarantee this right to them as to loyal citizens.
What are you doing to promote the popularity of the Russian language? What are you lacking in this respect? What is the role of Russian language media and online resources in providing information about the life of the Russian diaspora?
Since 2011 our agency and the Ministry of Education and Science have been a government contractor of the federal targeted program on the Russian language for 2011-2015. The agency is responsible for two sub-programs – one is to support the Russian language as the foundation for integration in the CIS, and the other is to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of our compatriots abroad. Implementing this program, last year we conducted about 50 major events in 61 countries to make Russian a more popular world language.
Experts are drafting two state concepts, entitled Russian School Abroad and Support for the Russian Language Abroad. These are not just concepts but plans. We hoped they would finally be approved in the beginning of this year but that did not happen largely because of the new law on education, which was adopted toward the end of last year. Now we have to adapt these concepts to the new law. Our compatriots abroad are eagerly awaiting implementation of these concepts and we hope that their approval will substantially speed up efforts to this end.
Alas, we cannot be too optimistic about the status of the Russian language for the time being. Its environment is gradually shrinking and this process cannot be stopped without serious government efforts. This will entail considerable spending on language courses, manuals and other teaching materials, upgrading courses for teachers and many other things. China, for one, opens Confucius courses and study rooms all over the world – a new one every four days on average. Obviously, we can’t compete with China but the existence of the problem is acknowledged by all. Moreover, the experience of our cultural centers abroad shows that the demand for learning Russian is great, but our resources can’t keep up. It would be a big step forward if we were just able to give everyone who wants to learn Russian the opportunity to do so.
As for Russian language media and online resources, I think their role has been seriously underrated. In school we used to be taught this certain quote by Lenin: “A newspaper is not only collective agitprop but also a collective organizer.” Actually, this phrase has certain logic for our compatriots abroad – it is media that brings people together and acts as a platform for communication and discussion, helping our compatriots abroad stay in touch with each other.
We have proposed establishing a special fund to support Russian language media abroad because their social and communicative role is fairly large, and many of them find it hard to survive in current market conditions without outside help. The Government Commission on Compatriots Living Abroad will discuss this initiative in the near future. We hope that this initiative will eventually receive organizational and material support from the national leadership.
Do you think that our compatriots abroad can help foster a friendly environment for Russia in the long term?
This is why our work with compatriots is deeply important. They will be the direct beneficiaries of better relations between Russia and their country of residence. But again, their lives can differ greatly depending on where they live. In some countries Russians hold important positions in government, business and society and quite often they suggest ideas on how to use their influence for the benefit of bilateral relations. In fact, many are enthusiastic about this and are doing what they can to help.
But there are also millions who need our support and attention and do not yet belong to any influential organizations. There are also countries where our compatriots and their organizations are divided by disagreements that are often exploited by the local authorities and even security agencies, to divide and conquer, so to speak. As I have already said, the circumstances are different.
But this is exactly why we are now setting the goal of forming a global Russian world (we have even suggested calling it “Русский мiр” in the old spelling) that would unite not only compatriots but all Russophiles on a global scale just like all French speakers are united by the Francophone project. This project should be based not on political loyalty or ideology but on the cultural and linguistic self-identification of people who want to feel part of the great culture of Leo Tolstoy and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
I don’t think this idea is utopian, but to become reality it needs the support not only of one federal agency or the state but the entire society. If we start implementing this idea with the entire Russian world, we will change attitudes not only to Russia as a country but also to ethnic Russians and Russia citizens. I think it’s worth the effort.