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People’s Russian diplomacy in the Middle East

Source: rus-obr.ru

Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict marked a her new role, which it acquired through hard power. Meanwhile, its soft power lags behind. New poll center Zogby Research Services showed that, in the opinion of the majority of the Arabs, support Russian regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has become a key factor in the escalation of the current conflict. The fact that in Syria, Russia has united with the forces of Shiite Iran, could push from her the Sunni majority in the region. In response, the Kremlin has decided to once again use the card with a soft public diplomacy remaining from the Soviet era, and increased the amount of humanitarian cooperation by state-sponsored organizations.

The main weapon in the modern arsenal of Russian diplomacy was the federal agency Rossotrudnichestvo.

This agency was created by presidential decree in 2008, becoming the direct heir of the Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship (USSF), which served as an ideological tool during the Cold War. Communication of the Russian Agency with USSF and its importance in the promotion of Russian soft power, reflected in the magnificent celebration of the 90th anniversary of the alliance. The event gathered 5000 visitors from 100 countries, and even visited the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov.

Rossotrudnichestvo has received all the powers necessary for the strengthening of cultural ties - this is the strategy of projecting Russia’s soft power abroad. This approach is based on the spread of the Russian language, direct cooperation with other Kremlin-sponsored organizations and large public corporations and to support the international development of the entire Middle East.

For example, “Rosatom”, the largest State Atomic Energy Corporation, is planning to build nuclear power plants throughout the Middle East and North Africa region, even organized a special event in September 2015, together with Rossotrudnichestvo to form a positive opinion about themselves.

At the heart of this organization is the principle of mutually beneficial exchange. It visas for a number of Russian guests, including journalists, pays all costs and helps prospective applicants from other countries to enter Russian universities. At the same time, it depicts Russia as a benevolent and progressive country, and whose authority is trying to distort the image of the West.

This agency works through a network of centers of Russian language and culture, which operates in the region. Today these centers are active in all major countries of the Middle East, including Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and even in Palestine. Moreover, this list will be expanded in the next few years. According to some estimates, in the Middle East and North Africa region Russian language knows about 1.5 million people. Thus, these centers play an important role in the promotion of the Russian language and Russian soft power projection.

Meanwhile, attempts to approach and modern Russia does not bring the results that the Soviet Union could boast. For example, in the USSR program of teaching Russian as a foreign language was developed with the participation of leading Soviet philologists, and their approach was highly scientific.

Hardly Rossotrudnichestvo uses these scientific methods. Most likely, in the first place it is based on the agency’s foreign policy instruments.

In fact, inside the Russian agency is often criticized for mismanagement and inefficiency. Now even been calls to reform it, because the Russian political elite is clearly sees his inconsistency. For example, in the budget of the agency on the distribution of Russian laid two billion rubles - quite a significant amount, given that 22 million Russians live below the poverty line.

Another element of the Russian people’s diplomacy strategy was education. In the past, the Soviet Union occupied the third place among the countries, which went for higher education, after the US and France. Many Middle East leaders once studied in Soviet universities: among them can be called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the sixth President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Glory to Soviet universities became the basis of current Russian plans to attract more foreign students to Russian universities. By 2019, the Russian government plans to invest $ 60 million to attract students from abroad. Providing grants to international students, Russian officials hope that one day these people will be able to achieve high positions in their home countries.

It is worth noting that, although over the years, knowledge of the Russian language is gradually fading, Russian world and its anti-Western element is firmly fixed in the minds of Russian graduates.

Russia also seeks to unite graduates of their schools. Last year, there were calls to create an organization that would unite all the graduates of Soviet and Russian universities in the Middle East. By some estimates, today in the Middle East and North Africa, there are more than 200 thousand graduates of Soviet and Russian universities: 100 thousand in Syria, 40,000 in Yemen, 30,000 in Libya, 15,000 in Jordan and 10,000 in Egypt.

Compared with the Western approach Russia strategy has unique features. As part of her students are selected on the basis of their motivation, rather than on the basis of their income or having ties with Russia. In many ways, Russia’s approach is based on the fact, in order to attract talented and poor students, to provide them with education and send them home, then to observe further developments.

Dmitry Frolovskiy
The Jerusalem Post, Israel
Original publication: Russia’s people diplomacy in the Middle East

22 February 2016

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