Friday, April 13, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Seeks to Expand Contacts with Compatriots Abroad

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 13 – The Kremlin appears to be planning to step up its contacts with those it calls “compatriots” abroad in the hopes of attracting some of them to come to the Russian Federation to help solve that country’s demographic problems and of developing an expanded “pool of friends” to influence the countries in which they live.
Not only are there rumors swirling in Moscow this week that Modest Kolerov, the Kremlin official who has overseen compatriot issues in recent years may be about to be replaced, but three online articles suggest that Moscow is again actively thinking about compatriots and how to reach them.
Two of these articles – one by commentator Andrei Areshev available at and a second by analyst Eduard Popov at 8914.html -- specifically wrestle with what may be the most difficult problem of all, defining who is a Russian compatriot and who is not.
All other countries legally define as “compatriots” only those people living abroad who are their citizens. Indeed, even states like Hungary or China that have significant co-ethnic communities beyond their borders do so lest an alternative definition threaten diplomatic comity and even international stability.
But since 1991, Moscow has insisted that the 25 million ethnic Russians and 15 million others culturally tied to them who now find themselves living abroad in the “newly independent” states are in fact Russian compatriots -- even though more than 90 percent of these 40 million people are citizens of other countries.
Despite being at variance with principles of international law, the Russian government has regularly used that term in its own legislation and more recently expanded this category to include within this category everyone abroad culturally, linguistically or ethnically tied to the population of the Russian Federation.
Not surprisingly, this has created problems not only for the states in which these countries live but also for the Russian government itself, something Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Moscow officials increasingly have been willing to acknowledge..
Indeed, as Areshev points out, Moscow’s “position, according to which are considered as Russian compatriots all persons who identify themselves as such complicates the work of diplomatic representatives of the [Russian] Ministry of Foreign Affairs with compatriots.”
Despite that, Russian officials have pressed ahead, viewing “compatriots” as a useful tool to pressure other states all the more especially since many Western governments have been unwilling to challenge Moscow on its expanded definition lest such challenges inflame Russian opinion.
As long as Moscow’s use of this term was more rhetorical than practical, this situation was sustainable: Moscow could talk about these people, and the West could respond or ignore such statements. And not surprisingly, Areshev and Popov report, most Russian institutions created to deal with them were either stillborn or relatively inactive.
In more recent times, however, declines in Russian influence abroad and the demographic crisis at home have led some in Moscow to think about how better to approach and make use of all the people it calls its compatriots.
To those ends, the Russian authorities have not only provided more resources to the institutions charged with developing contacts with compatriots but also have sought to develop an intellectual and policy framework that will guide Moscow’s efforts in this area in the future.
Tat’yana Poloskova, the head the Administration for Work with Compatriots and Countries of the CIS and Baltic of the Russian Center for International Scientific and Cultural Cooperation of the Russian Foreign Ministry, gave an interview this week outlining what is being done (
Noting that her organization is “the successor to the Soviet-era Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Ties” – a body she said had recently marked its “80th anniversary” – she used this interview to describe its declining fortunes for most of the post-Soviet period as well as its current resurgence.
Prior to the collapse of the USSR, Poloskova said, Moscow maintained 105 Soviet centers for science and culture abroad. But that number declined precipitously in the 1990s even though the independence of the Soviet republics and Baltic states presented new challenges.
Now, she continued, her administration operates such centers in 77 countries including within the CIS states. And she noted that much of the effort of this operation is directed at “the Russian diaspora” which Moscow no longer divides “into white, red or rose-colored.”
As far as the definition of “compatriot” goes, Poloskova argues that it reflects Moscow’s specific “know how” in this area of activities, one “broader than diaspora” and including people who can be “a pool of [Russia’s] friends” linked not just to ethnic Russian culture but to all the cultures of the Russian Federation.
(In her remarks, Poloskova concedes that she and her colleagues currently face one serious problem: “professional compatriots” who are more interested in extracting funds and other resources from Moscow for themselves than in promoting ties between themselves and the countries they live in with the Russian Federation.)
But in making these remarks, Poloskova provides relatively little insight on Moscow’s thinking beyond committing itself to doing more of what it has been doing in the past. Eduard Popov in his article fill that gap, arguing that the Russian authorities must meet five challenges in working with compatriots:
First, the Moscow analyst argues, the Russian government must create what he calls “an intellectual staff and controlling organ” to design and regulate policy in this area. Second, he argues, Moscow must make it easier for its compatriots to obtain Russian Federation citizenship.
Third, Russia’s embassies in the CIS countries and Baltic states in particular should expand their propaganda efforts to get Russia’s compatriots to return home. Fourth, all Russian government agencies must work to create conditions for the resettlement of these returning compatriots.
And fifth, and perhaps most significant of all, Moscow must carefully manage this process so that those coming back to Russia will contribute to that country’s economy and not disturb its precarious ethnic balance rather than becoming burdens on the society and a danger to its stability.

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