The Kremlin is seeking to spread its influence abroad through its foreign cultural work. The plan is working brilliantly in the Middle East, says Joseph Croitoru
The concept of the "Great Geopolitical Game" is integral to today's government discourse in Russia. The phrase refers to the foreign policy aim pursued by President Vladimir Putin to once again position his country as a global superpower. This "game" also includes the Kremlin's realignment of its foreign cultural policy, manifested in 2008 by the restructuring of the competent authority.
At that time, the Russian Centre for International Cooperation in Research and Culture (Rossarubeschzentr) was turned into the Federal Agency for the CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) and placed under the jurisdiction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This government agency is pursuing a massive expansion course as Moscow apparently tries to hark back to the days when the Soviet Union wielded global influence as leader of the socialist world revolution. Soviet experience and old contacts are therefore being re-activated, albeit using modern methods and contemporary rhetoric.
Tellingly, the head of Rossotrudnichestvo since 2015, Lyubov Glebova, began her political career in the Komsomol, or Young Communist League. In the Soviet era, this political training organisation also played an important role in international educational work.
Russia's cultural offensive in the Middle East
The Russian cultural offensive is particularly evident in the Middle East, where Moscow is asserting greater military power. Many Russian cultural centres have been opened since 2009 in Arab countries where none previously existed. Examples include Jordan, the Palestinian territories (West Bank), and most recently the United Arab Emirates in 2012. There have been Russian cultural centres in Egypt and Syria since the 1960s.
The realignment of Moscow's cultural policy has led to an increase in both the number of staff deployed to the Middle East and their professionalism. In addition, Moscow's foreign cultural work has been receiving media support, in particular from the TV channel Russia Today and the news portal Sputnik, most comprehensively in the respective Arab-language versions.
The fact that these Kremlin mouthpieces have close links to the Rossotrudnichestvo agency is demonstrated by the number of former agency employees who now hold key positions in Russian cultural institutions in the Arab world, especially in those cases where these employees speak Arabic. The director of the Cairo centre, Alexei Tevanyan, for instance, was an editor at Russia Today in 2009 and 2010.
Besides educating the public about Russian culture in all its many facets – where possible, with a certain political slant – Moscow culture officials stationed in Arab countries are trying to forge ties with schools and institutions of higher education. Russian has thus been introduced as a subject at several Arab universities in recent years.
In Syria – a major focus of Russian foreign policy in the region – a Russian language and culture course was launched at the University of Damascus in 2014. Only recently, in October 2017, a Centre for the Russian Language was established there as well. The tasks of this new centre include training Syrians to become Russian teachers. They are needed in the growing number of Syrian schools where Russian is being taught as an elective since 2014.