Conference reports Russia as enfant terrible. In the eye of the “others”

The 13th Annual Aleksanteri Conference “Russia and the World”, which took place in the main building of the University of Helsinki, October 23–25, was dedicated first and foremost to Russian foreign policy.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds, Vol VI 3-4 2013, p 2
Published on on January 21, 2014

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The 13th Annual Aleksanteri Conference “Russia and the World”, which took place in the main building of the University of Helsinki, October 23–25, was dedicated first and foremost to Russian foreign policy. There were more than 40 academic panels at the conference, and five plenary sessions: Russia’s Place in the World; Russia and the EU: From Cooperation to Partnership: Moving beyond the Russia-EU Deadlock; Russia and International Relations Theory; Choices and Necessities of Security Policy for the 21st Century; and Russia’s Futures.

At the opening ceremony, Markku Kivinen, the director of Aleksanteri Institute, said that today’s Russia lacks diversification in the economy, democracy and the rule of law, a welfare regime, and predictability of both life and of foreign policy. He suggested that creation of the new Russian identity and rationality is badly needed, and the aim of the conference was to understand the role of “others” in Russia and in relation to Russia. At the plenary session Russia’s Place in the World, Marie Mendras from the Paris School of International Affairs added to the picture that the biggest problem of Russia at present is the “lack of rotation of personnel” (mentioning the political elites and highest bureaucracy first and foremost). Richard Sakwa from the University of Kent also stressed that Russia’s major problem at the moment is its administrative regime, which is contrary to the constitution and state itself. He also suggested that, nowadays, the ideology of globalization is dead, and even in the European Union itself there are centripetal processes at work, so it is not surprising that Russia is also floating between East and West. He predicted the resurrection of an “age of diplomacy” in international affairs regarding Russia and the European Union.

Jeffry Mankoff from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) spoke about the new search for identity in Russia, i.e. Eurasian cooperation and collaboration with China and India, and the new institutional expression of this cooperation in the Russian desire to reach out to Eurasia. He highlighted the two sets of values that nowadays are emerging in Russian cultural politics and that are mutually contradictory: the Eurasian and the European. Andrei Kortunov, the Director General of Russian International Affairs Council, mentioned that, as he sees it, Russia is not viewed by the West as a highly developed country, but rather as a country of the Third World. It is not Russia that needs self-reflection; it is the West that should re-consider its attitude towards Russia. If Russia is not included in the “world government” on an equal basis with other developed countries, he sees no possibility of positive development projects for Russia, and consequently no possibility for substantive change.

One of the “hottest” themes, the Arctic, was discussed at the panel Russia and the Arctic. At the present time, Russia is trying again to make sense of its Arctic territories, and of the Northern Sea Way, notwithstanding the fact that it demands huge resources, human and material investments, and diplomatic efforts. The problems and international consequences of Russian polar activity became the topic for lively discussion. More theoretical and methodological issues were talked about at the session on Russia’s public diplomacy as a soft power. The issue of what to consider “soft power” was examined. More generally, there were discussions of what Mikhail Prozorov called “soft-power capital” — Russian culture, the “Russian world” movement, the “Rossotrudnichestvo” organization — as instruments in cross-cultural dialogue with neighboring and Western countries.

In the final plenary session on Russia’s futures, the member of the Committee for the Future in the Parliament of Finland, Paula Tiihonen, summarized the ideas of the conference: “It is hard to talk about the future of Russia. Some weak signals of positive developments are much more difficult to detect than the negative ones. Nevertheless, it is important not to miss them.” ≈