soft power

This week I had the opportunity to attend the first International Forum for the Development of Parliamentarism in Moscow. It was a fairly big show, with about 500 delegates from nearly 100 countries, of whom around 400 were members of parliament and 100 were ‘experts’ (academics and the like). Clearly, the Russians don’t do a thing like this for the sheer hell of it. The forum served a political/diplomatic purpose, namely strengthening contacts with foreign countries and winning friends. In short, it was an exercise in ‘soft power’. I had been asked to make a short 2-3 minute speech, but the session I was meant to do it in ran so much over time that I never got a chance. My own role, therefore, was very much that of observer. But in that capacity, I was able to make a few judgements about how different countries view Russia, what the prospects for Russian soft power are, and how Russia is presenting itself to the world.


The primary impression I got from the forum was a stark difference in attitudes towards Russia in the West and in the rest of the world. This could be seen from who did and did not attend the forum.

In the first place, there was an obvious lack of parliamentarians from the so-called ‘Anglosphere’ (primarily USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK.) There was still quite a lot of English spoken at the forum, but it was mainly from Africans and Europeans. The latter were reasonably well represented, but by and large the Europeans consisted of the ‘usual suspects’ from the nationalist fringe. For instance, at one of the sessions I attended a French MP from the Front National delivered a diatribe complaining that racism and xenophobia had been criminalized in France as a way of silencing those who spoke out against mass immigration. A German MP from the Alternative für Deutschland declared that democracy required more nationalism. A Russian-speaking Latvian denounced the Latvian government for allegedly trying to ‘wipe out’ the country’s Russian minority and distributed a letter protesting against the arrest of Russian-Latvian Aleksandr Gaponenko. And a Serbian opposition MP denounced Kosovar independence, saying that the Kosovars already had their own homeland  – ‘it’s called Albania’.

There were some more mainstream Europeans. For instance, a German professor (who on investigation turns out to be quite respectable) delivered a quite interesting talk with data showing that the rise of populism in Europe was associated with an increase in confidence in democracy and was not therefore the threat to democracy it was generally believed to be. One session was moderated by French MP and former Transport Minister, Thierry Mariani, who’s a member of the Republican Party, which is respectably centre-right. But Mariani is somewhat of an odd-ball, in that he is demonstrably pro-Russian, having visited Crimea in 2015 and having called on the French government to recognize the peninsula’s annexation by Russia. His presence shows that Russia does enjoy some support among mainstream European politicians, but such examples are fairly rare. On the whole, the European nationalist fringe was more obvious in Moscow this week.

For the most part, political elites from the mainstream West don’t want to be associated with Russia. But judging from the forum, the rest of the world doesn’t share this attitude. There were a large number of expressions of friendship from delegates from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Asia. In many cases, parliaments from those countries sent quite senior people to represent them, including a number of parliamentary Speakers. The Speaker of the Namibian parliament, for instance, gave a quite lively speech in which she included the rather startling phrase: ‘There is no AK-47 which is too heavy for a woman to carry!’ These delegates seemed to take the forum quite seriously. For instance, the representative of one organization of African parliaments handed over a copy of a report his organization had prepared, proposing future directions of dialogue. I was struck by one African MP who declared that African countries were fed up with powerful states telling them how to manage their affairs and then sanctioning them when they didn’t do as they were told. By resisting such pressure, Russia was heading in the right direction, he said, before telling the audience: ‘Russia, it is time for you to take your stand in Africa.’    In short, I detected quite a lot of goodwill towards Russia from countries who aren’t members of what is termed the ‘West’.

The tone of the discussions was also somewhat revealing. There was, for instance, a lot of talk of women’s rights and of how best to expand the number of women in parliament. (By contrast, LGBT rights didn’t get a mention.) And many speakers talked about the need for parliamentarians to broaden contacts with voters, increase the transparency of the legislative process, and the like. It is often said that Russia is trying to set itself up as an alternative to Western democracy and to exercise soft power by leading an authoritarian bloc against Western hegemony. But there wasn’t anything remotely authoritarian about anything anybody said at the forum. Quite the contrary. There was an almost universal acceptance of democratic processes (even the Chinese delegate I heard spoke about the need for more transparency and public involvement in government). By choosing to hold a conference of the topic of parliamentarianism, Russia most certainly wasn’t sending a signal that it’s opposed to parliamentary democracy and wishes to lead an authoritarian alternative to it. Rather, it seems to be trying to expand its influence through contact with legislative institutions in other countries, and by expressing its support for democratic processes. Some speakers at the forum (such as the German professor mentioned above) contrasted the apparently democratic nature of populism with the seemingly anti-democratic stances adopted by supposedly democratic institutions in the West. Seen this way, Russia isn’t opposing authoritarianism to democracy, but populist democracy to liberal democracy as currently understood in the West.

In conclusion, while the forum revealed that Russia has few friends in the Western mainstream, it also showed that Russia enjoys a good degree of sympathy in the rest of the world, and that it is able to articulate a vision which resonates with non-Western audiences. If nothing else, therefore, the forum revealed that Russia is far from ‘isolated’, and for that reason I suspect that the Russians will consider it a success.

21 thoughts on “soft power”

  1. “Seen this way, Russia isn’t opposing authoritarianism to democracy, but populist democracy to liberal democracy as currently understood in the West.”

    I don’t know what Russia is opposing (it has a whole bunch of different currents), but democratic alternatives to ‘liberal democracy’ are not something new. There is, for example, a model called “grassroots democracy”, practiced in a variety of places in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.


  2. Russia is meeting with the international community – the real international community.

    In the media we only ever hear the opinions of western nations.

    The rest of the world ends up being bullied and victims (Libya, Iraq, Syria) of these western countries and we never hear their voices.

    The world is changing and voices from the whole world should be heard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “In the media we only ever hear the opinions of western nations.

      The rest of the world ends up being bullied and victims (Libya, Iraq, Syria) of these western countries and we never hear their voices.”

      This is far too simple. The world isn’t a simple binary division between “bully” Western countries and the “bullied” third world. Each region of the world has its own dynamics, and these dynamics lead in pro-Western directions just as often as the opposite. Some regions of the world, such as most of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, tilt heavily pro-Western. Southeast Asians generally worry more about being bullied by China than anyone else, and Africans tend to worry the most about being ignored or forgotten rather than being bullied. To put some simple numbers on the point, (relying again on Pew data), numbers for “favourable” perceptions of the US in particular are very high for many African and SE Asian countries, eg. Bangladesh (76%), Ethiopia (81%), Ghana (59%), Ivory Coast (88%), Malaysia (54%), Mali (79%), Nigeria (69%), Philippines (78%), Thailand (73%), Vietnam (84%). I agree that it’s important to pay more attention to views and perceptions prevalent in the Third World, but that means recognizing that they have their own concerns, which are often local rather than global, and they’re no more interested in serving as proxies for (ironically, often Western) “anti-imperialism” than they are in being client states of a Western country.


  3. I feel that I should add that having good relations with a country like Namibia is relatively small compensation for having bad relations with a much more powerful country like the UK. Still, the West isn’t the world, and as time goes on the West’s relative power is declining. So, while one shouldn’t exaggerate the benefits of outreach like this, it’s not totally without meaning.


    1. To be fair, if it were a choice between China and the UK then Russia has done fine. I remain puzzled as to why the Europeans are apparently oblivious to the burgeoning Russian- Chinese relationship- perhaps someone should slowly explain to them that the West is not the World. (I always look forward to your articles.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating. The Russian government is playing a very clever game in advancing their own self-interest by appealing to deep-seated frictions caused by Western hubris throughout the world. I agree that closer ties with Namibia obviously do not compensate for alienation from the West. However, from Moscow’s perspective, numbers do count — the larger the number of countries that oppose the politics of liberal intervention (is there a better phrase?) the more legitimate that Russia’s policies will appear to be to many people, at home and abroad, and likely even within the Western democracies themselves. That has to be an underlying purpose of the conference.

    BTW, I would imagine that there would have been serious-minded Austrian, Hungarian and Italian representation at the conference as well, given that all three governments have had to confront the self-assured illiberalism of the political elites they are confronting and defeated at the ballot box.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ben, I have no idea what kind of person are you, or even about your age. It’s just your seemingly “benevolent” comment that I don’t like – because it’s senseless, meaningless collection of pre-fabricated sentences and “truths”, and, also, because it is, sadly, very typical. In particular:

      1) “the larger the number of countries that oppose the politics of liberal intervention (is there a better phrase?) the more legitimate that Russia’s policies will appear to be to many people, at home and abroad, and likely even within the Western democracies themselves.”

      Dear Ben! Do you know the definition of the term “legitimate”? It’s not an idle of rhetoric question – I honestly have doubts whether you know, or, if you know, then your definition could be rather… odd. “Russia” has no need to “legitimize” its policies “at home”. A lot of people in the West, even those who appear sympathetic to Russia, are under impression that “Russia” (by which they understand what the Russophobes call “The Regime”) needs any inner legitimizing, as if lacking it. It is not the case.

      Next – no matter who, no matter how many, the West will see liberal interventionism as a legitimate tool forever. It’s is in its core code, it is what makes the West what it is. Abandoning it will spark an existential crisis. Opinion of the non-West on West’s policies is completely irrelevant. No one asks animals’ opinion on the way to the slaughterhouse – and the West still sees itself as the only “people” (read – humans) on the planet.

      Finally – it’s highly doubtable that there are any “Western democracies” left anymore, because:

      2) “…all three governments have had to confront the self-assured illiberalism of the political elites they are confronting and defeated at the ballot box.”

      Dear Ben! Do you have any slightest idea of what is “liberalism”? In the first paragraph you wrote about “liberal interventionism”. Now you claim that it was actually “the self-assured illiberalism”. Again – do you know the meaning of the term or not?

      The Western countries are united and equal in their servitude to the US of A. Trump is not a cause of any “rift” or “unpleasantries” in the “Transatlantic community” ™ – he’s a symptom of the deep rooted American Exceptionalism ™. He is rude yet honest, in the way that he calls an old crack-heroine whore-Europe not “Madame”, but “Hey, you bitch!”. Everyone knows the “West”, as in American satellites, will do as they are told. Because they have no democracy, i.e. “the rule by the people”.

      The very moment post 1945 Europe chose to embrace the so-called “liberal democracy” as the only viable form of rule it turned into self-perpetuating elitist regime. Logic was impeccable – if the Liberalism as the ideology is the best thing that happened to the Humanity, therefore it must be maintained at all costs. Democratic process presents a danger to the liberalism, because gives a chance for non-liberal political forces to get to the power. Therefore, democracy must be eliminated. In the bourgeois democracies of the West it is ludicrously easy to accomplish – as could be gleamed from the name, only people with money are your lucky ticket into the politics. They are “the people” who rule. And international capital is the biggest Man of them all.

      3) As for the false choice of “UK vs Namibia”… it’s a false choice, d’uh! Russia plays with the cards it’s been dealt to by a crooked dealer. Besides, as of now, no one is really sure what it means to “have good relations with Britain”. EU is prickly over Brexit. Former colonies are both asking for repayment/repenting and for investments and support. USA enjoys it’s “special relations” with the UK so much, that now, upon hearing the command “Jump!”, Britain does not ask “How high?”, but instead starts to levitate to the stratosphere all on its own, thinking America will appreciate it.

      Russia and UK has so many unresolved (and unresolvable) issue that all talks about “closer ties” are moot. No, this won’t happen. Why? Because Russia is seen as existential danger to the West, as some sort of “Alternative für Europe”. There could be no alternative to the totalitarian liberal world order, you, sillies!

      P.S. There are no kind words in my comment, but – you hang on there! Be healthy, good luck and have a nice day!


      1. Lyttenbourg, we seemed to be pretty much in harmony as far as art history “cum” arts are concerned, if I may call it that.

        If I look closer I can understand your response to Ben. Or is it an ongoing struggle? I shouldn’t interfere in? Bot being familiar with the comment section here?

        Yes, there was an air of supremacy. Popped up on my head can’t help. Maybe a patronizing attitude would be the better term.

        Agree with much of what of what you write. But why do you need an antagonist to articulate it? We may have the same basic problem in this respect. Somehow.

        PS, I miss you on SST. If you recall were we met.


  5. From my own experience:

    Russia is reasonably positively regarded in both Vietnam and China. In Vietnam as a hedge against China, in China as a hedge against the west.

    To a certain extent, Chinese see Russias as overly warlike and aggressive in pursuit of their goals. Some aquaintances especially remarked that Russia makes it basically cost free to insult her, and reacts to insults in inefficient ways.
    On the other hand, the Russian combination of proclivity towards and being good at violence means that Russians hands down win any questions akin to “which country would you like to have on your side in a fight” .

    My suggestions towards Russia would be to increase cooperation with east asia in the cultural sphere. Russian ballet and Classical music has a lot to offer. While being perceived as “honorable barbarians” isnt the worst thing, being perceived as “culturally refined warriors” is imho better and gives more options.

    Russia is also perceived as not totally composed of hypocrites.

    My African aquiantances are predominantly Ethiopian and quite well disposed towards Russia (going back to Russian support for Ethiopia prior and during the battle of Adowa, as well as some shared but quite distant religious ties). Ethiopia is a pretty unique African nation though (because it actually is a nation, rather then an invention).


    1. I think there’s a good case to be made that Russia has enjoyed a substantial measure of success in building its popularity in the Third World. Despite the appearance at first glance, there’s evidence of this in a Pew poll taken last year

      Russia seems to be more popular as a country than Putin is personally, but still the average for favourable views of Russia worldwide is only 34%. However, there’s a big generational gap. Further down in the article, there’s a list of 12 countries, all of which have relatively low approval ratings of Russia, except Vietnam. However, 5 of the 12 have generally positive views of Russia among 18-29 year olds. In Japan and Brazil, the perceptions gap between younger and older (50+) respondents is a full 37 percentage points. It’s also notable that, although approval ratings for Russia among all age groups are relatively low worldwide, there’s a significant gap between perceptions in the “West and the rest”. Favourable views of Russia in Africa, the Asia-Pacific, Latin American and the Middle East are all around 35%, whereas in the United States and Europe they’re lower than 30%. I think this is a picture of a country that, while starting from a low base, is making serious progress in building its soft power. I think it’s likely that, in many countries, bad memories of the Soviet Union will keep opinions toward Russia negative permanently among older respondents. But as more and more of the population has no living memory of the Soviet Union, I expect these approval numbers to continue upward.


      1. It would be interesting to know where people get their information to form opinions about other countries.

        – visits?
        – friendship?
        – family / social group

        Survey about attitudes to other countries are interesting but what purpose do they serve?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “Survey about attitudes to other countries are interesting but what purpose do they serve?”

        It’s helpful for decision-makers to have information on the way they and their country are perceived in other parts of the world. For example, the deterioration in perceptions of the US reflected in these kinds of surveys during the George W Bush administration helped to inform the ongoing conversation in America about its foreign role and its costs and benefits. It’s always helpful for decision-makers to have access to more information rather than less.


  6. Amusingly enough, in Japan it was the other way round for me.

    People younger then 30 where had more stereotypical western views of Russia (was different with Koreans for some reason), while some elder Salaryman manager types apparently admired Putin a lot. One had extensive dealings with Vladivostok, and apparently was very postively surprised at the lack of bullshit, and how orderly (obviously not as orderly as Japan, but much more orderly and predictable then expected) business dealings where.

    He also remarked that Russians actually react pretty well to “honest flattery” (hard to translate, he meant “realistic compliments in the spirit of reciprocity” as opposed to just flattery) and was puzzled why the west doesnt get this. He also had the opinion that Russians do not fear Japan at all and do not regard the Japanrelated parts of WW2 as a pretty big deal , which makes it easier for Japanese to do business there (compared to Korea or China) in some aspects.

    The Russians also arent as arrogant as the Americans. While they sometimes think too highly (and about as often too lowly) of themselfs, they do not think they are by default the bestests at everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Paul, you mentioned usual suspects from the European far right which implies they feature regularly. How often do far right politicians get invited to official government events?


    1. I don’t have an answer to your question. I call them ‘usual suspects’ simply because connections between Russia and what is often called the ‘far right’ are often cited nowadays, and it does tend to be those on the nationalist right who are most ‘pro-Russian’.


      1. I believe it’s both European ‘far right’, and ‘far left’ (the dying species, I know). In other words, all those who are not neoliberal globalists. Or, using official terminology, ‘euroskeptics’.


      2. I think that’s right. Russia has significant appeal to anti-globalists/anti-“liberal order” types, who are found on both the far right and far left. But simply because the far right is much more numerous, it’s more visible among pro-Russian elements. So it is accurate to say that, for the most part, Russia has more appeal to the Western right than the Western left, but only because the Western left is, for the most part, more tightly consolidated around a centrist consensus of “liberal internationalist” views on foreign policy.


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