Even Summary: Russia in Global Affairs

By Katherine Baughman

On January 18th, the Center for Strategic and International Studies together with Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies hosted a panel discussion on Russian foreign policy following the launch of a special issue of Strategic Analysis entitled “Russia in Global Affairs.” Six of the authors who contributed to this issue were in attendance: Maxim Bratersky, Leonid Grigoriev and Andrei Skryba, professors at the Higher School of Economics; Alexander Lukin, head of the Department of International Relations at the Higher School of Economics; Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics; and Ambassador Mark Entin, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Alexander Lukin began by outlining the nature of the journal in which this special issue was published as well as the particular topics of focus of each article within the issue. He spoke to the significance of Strategic Analysis as an English language publication operating in India, rather than a Western journal published in a country with more strained diplomatic relations with Russia. He then described his school of thought and that of his colleagues at the Higher School of Economics and Russia in Global Affairs as generally centrist —in other worlds, neither inordinately pro-Western, nor pro-Putin in its outlook.

After this brief introduction, Lukin immediately opened up the discussion to questions from those in attendance concerning the wide range of topics addressed in this special issue of Strategic Analysis. The first question regarding how Russia justifies its support of minority rule in Syria was addressed with an explanation of the Russian perception of terrorism as being rooted not in authoritarianism, but rather in the chaos that arises in the absence of a strong state. The panel defined Russia’s goal in Syria as preventing regime change in order to allow for a self-initiated, unimposed political reconciliation, and assured the audience that Russian military involvement would be scaled back once a non-military solution became feasible. The assertion that the situation in Syria could be described as “minority rule” was a point of contention for the panelists.

In discussing the Russian Federation’s involvement in Latin America since the fall of the Soviet Union, the panelists emphasized a transition to economic considerations and cooperation in the region. BRICS summits and Rosneft’s recent cooperation with Venezuela were cited as evidence of this trend, and educational exchange was mentioned as another area of successful Russian-Latin American interaction.

In regard to the question of how this recent pivot to Asia differs from similar cycles and pivots observed throughout Russian history, the panel identified five key points: 1) that China and Russia now operate on the basis of shared values and a common multipolar geopolitical vision; 2) the West is now strengthening these ties in its alienation of Russia and China; 3) the Asia Pacific is now a universally-acknowledged global center of power; 4) China, Russia’s largest trading partner, now is the largest economy in the world; and 5) Russian policy toward China no longer depends on Russia-West relations. According to the panel, these factors make this pivot more likely to be successful than those that came before.

The next round of questions brought an inquiry as to Russia’s goals in the global context: whether and how, in an era where world power status is decided by economic rather than military might, Russia aims to be considered as a first-tier power, and whether it is possible for Russia to become a part of a “global civilization.” Most of the panelists came to a consensus on the fact that though Russia aims to be an independent center in a multipolar world, it cannot be considered a great economic power due to its resource-driven and crisis-stricken economy. However, the contention was made that military power is not in fact irrelevant today, and that current world conflicts necessitate its importance in determining global influence. Whether or not Russia could become part of a global civilization, the panelists claimed, depended on one’s understanding of that term: while Russia is part of a global market and a globalized culture, it is not a part of Western global political civilization, nor does it strive to be.

Next, in answer to a question posed by an attendee on the topic, one panelist asserted that Russia must halt any violation of Finnish, Swedish and other Scandinavian countries’ airspace: though Russia has little leeway for maneuver in its foreign policy, he said, this is an area where it must alter its approach. However, he suggested that calling attention to a perceived security threat serves as a useful pretext for Scandinavian NATO member states to be granted the elevated NATO military presence they have long sought.

On an entirely different subject, Russia’s presence at the recent Paris Peace Conference was characterized by the panelists as a natural result of diplomatic inertia. They posited that a political resolution of the Syrian conflict and U.S.-Russian agreement on the containment of Iran must necessarily preclude Russia’s active involvement in resolving the Arab-Israeli crisis, in which it currently plays a passive role.

Lastly, the panelists addressed a query as to the extent to which domestic policy — and, specifically, President Vladimir Putin’s personal role in policy formulation — should inform our understanding of Russian foreign policy. They put forth the contention that neither the idea of “hostile encirclement” nor the personal worldview of President Putin serve as the source of policy in Russia. Russian policy as they view it is rather rooted in the desires, values and feelings of the Russians themselves. In the panelists’ estimation, the popularity of Putin’s policies — including that of the current anti-Western bent— stems from their correspondence to the mood of the people outside of the major Western Russian cities who make up the majority of the population. In other words, the will of the people, not domestic politics, determine Russian foreign policy.

In its wide scope and in the involved debate that it engendered, this panel discussion provided a unique and important perspective on the issues affecting Russian foreign policy.

Katherine Baughman is a first-year student in the MAERES program. She completed her BA at Middlebury College and interned with CSIS before beginning the MAERES program. She is currently a Graduate Fellow at CERES and is participating in the Center for Global Interests’ Rising Experts Program.

Event Summary: Elections Have Consequences

Rebecca Ruhl, MAERES ’17, presents a discussion of “Elections Have Consequences: A Look at Poland,” an event hosted by the Wilson Center.

On Tuesday November 29th, the Wilson Center hosted “Elections Have Consequences: A Look at Poland.” The purpose of the panel was to discuss the 2015 ascendancy of the Law and Justice Party to power in Poland, first winning the Presidency and then 51% of the Parliament. This victory has resulted in changes of direction in Poland, a country that was the poster child for economic and democratic transition as it emerged from the communist period. Current policies toward state security, public media, economic policy and the courts have been politically divisive. The event sought to address the question: “What is the meaning of these changes for Poland’s future, for the group of Central/Eastern countries and for the EU, where Poland has aspired to leadership?” This event—one of the many hosted by the Wilson Center related to our region—featured two sessions. In the first, Leszek Balcerowicz spoke on economic transitions, while Prezemyslaw Zurawski vel Grajewski and Slawomir Sierakowski offered differing opinions on the state of politics in Poland.

The first speaker was Leszek Balcerowicz, a Professor of Economics at the Warsaw School of Economics, as well as former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. Furthermore, Dr. Balcerowicz was a leader in Poland’s own transition to capitalism. He spoke on the topic of good and bad economic transitions, and what differentiates the two. Interestingly, Balcerowicz rejects the idea of a backlash to globalism as a cause for Poland’s current, “bad” economic transition. Instead, he cites “errors” made by the previous political party including political scandals, the poor election campaign of the previous president, the issue of refugees in Poland, and the lack of political competition for the Law and Justice Party.

Next, Prezemyslaw Zurawski vel Grajewski, advisor to the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke from point of view of the Law and Justice Party. vel Grajewski argued against the critics of the current Polish administration, saying that Polish people now have access to a wider variety of media and that the country is in a better position in its foreign affairs. Also on the panel was Slawomir Sierakowski, a Polish sociologist, political commentator, and critic of the current Polish administration. At first, Mr. Sierakowski seemed troubled by the comments of Vel Grajewski, arguing that they were political propaganda rather than part of an intellectual discussion. Sierakowski used his own experience as a commentator in Poland to demonstrate the curtailing of press freedom, saying that he had been barred from speaking on major television channels since Law and Justice’s ascension to power. He continued to explain his take on why Polish politics have changed so drastically. Citing the concept of “social deprivation,” Sierakowski said that people did not feel the effects of Poland’s positive economic indicators, they were driven to vote for the populists.

“Elections Have Consequences” offered a fascinating glimpse at the current political debates in Poland. Particularly in the second panel, the current political polarization in Polish society was on full display. Audience members’ questions showed how that the conversation about Polish politics has great resonance with the recent American elections.

My ASEEES Experience

Madina Bizhanova, MAERES 2018, reflects on her experience attending ASEEES for the first time.

Last week I attended the 48th annual convention of the Association for Slavic, East European & Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) that took place in Marriott Wardman Park, Washington’s largest hotel, on November 17-20.

As a student of Eurasian studies, I was looking forward to gain insight into the scholarly society of ASEEES, publisher of the Slavic Review, one of the leading journals in the field. A first-time attendee, I was first struck by a truly grand scale of the convention. Every two hours about 50 panels were taking place simultaneously and the variety of options was almost overwhelming.

Despite ASEEES’ regional focus, the convention took place under the theme of “Global Conversations”, which seems to be an attempt to emphasize the significance of Eurasia as for academicians so for the policymakers. The panels I attended seemed to contribute to this effort, one of them directly addressing the question “How Area Studies Scholars Can Go Global, or Not”, others debating the prospects of the US-Russian relations in the context of the upcoming change in the US leadership. Even the panel on history, “Crossing and Creating Borders in the Postwar USSR”, emphasized the limits of borders in containing political, social, and cultural movements.

Most of the panel discussions evolved like any academic essay. First, the moderator introduces the research question to the audience and explains its importance. Then each panel member summarizes his or her paper and the final speaker evaluates each paper on its own merits and then in terms of its contribution to the panel question. However, unlike in usual essay-writing, panel discussion provides you with an opportunity to ask the authors a few questions before drawing your overall conclusions. It was exciting to see how academic scholarship was advancing forward before your own eyes in a matter of a few hours.

The convention was not only an academic event. Like any major gatherings of professionals of one field, the convention provided the attendees with networking opportunities. Some of the ‘special events’ included roundtables on careers of the Eurasian Studies graduates, such as “Lessons Learned: Initiatives on Careers beyond the Professoriate” chaired by the director of my program, Benjamin Loring, and “Careers in Think Tanks and Policy Institutes”, chaired by a prominent author on Central Asia, Anna Grzymala-Busse, from Stanford University. These careers panels were followed by Eurasian program receptions, such as my own at Georgetown University, which brought together graduates of these programs with current students, allowing the latter to find out various career paths they could opt to follow.

“We Maidanists Grew Up”: A New Generation of Ukrainian Reform

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On Tuesday, September 28th, members of Ukrainian Parliament Serhiy Leshchenko, Mustafa Nayyem, and Svitlana Zalishchuk gathered in the crowded boardroom of the National Democratic Institute in order to explain their views regarding the present state of Ukraine’s democratic reform. To the casual observer, one thing stood out about their faces – they were all young, each in their mid-30s. Three years ago, before Maidan and the tumultuous events that followed, none of them would have imagined that they would be where they are today. Back then they were bloggers, journalists, nonprofit activists. Now they were in leadership positions, with real power to shape a new Ukraine according to the vision of the next generation. Nayyem put it nicely: “We Maidanists grew up,” he said. “We are ready to take this responsibility.”

However, the task they faced was a challenging one. At the beginning of the conference, Nayyem set the tone when he acknowledged that the initially high expectations of democratic reform in Ukraine after Maidan had not been realized. However, as he and his fellow compatriots repeatedly stressed, this did not mean that Ukraine was not on the right track. Over the course of the discussion, these young reformers discussed the triumphs and setbacks that continue to define the process of democratic reform in the country, as well as the messages they wished to communicate to the American public.

Civil society in Ukraine is vibrant and growing, but it needs help.

As products of and leaders within Ukrainian civil society before their appointment to Parliament in Petro Poroshenko’s electoral bloc in 2014, each of the panelists expressed a sincere respect for the country’s civil society, attesting to its power to affect true social and political change. They stressed that Ukraine represents a country of vast human resources, which have only begun to be tapped into in recent years. Civil society is each day becoming more active and sophisticated, and is undergoing an unprecedented renaissance in the country’s history. Nayyem expressed his view that Ukrainian civil society had reached a critical point of development, stating that, unlike after the Orange Revolution, civil society after Maidan continues to be one of the single most active and impactful political forces in the country. This furthers the legacy of the Maidan revolution in a very real way, keeping government accountable to the demands of the Ukrainian people who form an active and informed citizenry.

However, despite this impressive progress, the panelists admit that Ukrainian civil society cannot carry the full weight of reform on its own, nor has it reached its final and ideal form. Zalishchuk suggested that the network of civil society should be expanded to new actors and organizations, while legislation such as the electoral law should be changed to be more accommodating to civil society forces. Leschenko argued that watchdog organizations required more support and funding, while Nayyem stressed that more citizens should be brought directly into the political process.

Institutions need to be strengthened to ensure reform regardless of politicking.

Just as civil society needs strengthening, so too do institutions. According to Serhiy Leschenko, progress in reform can only be assured over the long term if key institutions are kept separate from volatile political influences and struggles for power. Svitlana Zalishchuk mentioned that certain independent institutions in need of special protections include the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, Prosecutors Office, and Constitutional Court.

Ukraine needs the support of the international community now more than ever.

The MPs expressed their gratitude for international actors such as the EU and US for their support of Ukrainian reform. However, they stressed that, in order to maintain the momentum of reform and not regress back to business as usual, it is now more important than ever to have the active and involved support of the international community.

This support is needed in many forms. Mustafa Nayyem, himself deeply involved in the work of reforming law enforcement agencies in the country, stressed that Ukraine requires both international experts to provide nuanced advice on this reform process, as well as funds for training the national police force. Svitlana Zalishchuk, on the other hand, underscored the importance of Western partners in helping Ukraine to grapple with the continued Russian threat, and called for stronger international consensus on the use of sanctions against Russia, as well as military aid for Ukraine to deter further intrusion into its territory.

They are the future.

In their presentation, the panelists were very open about the fact that they were new actors working within an old and flawed system. They acknowledged that corruption and antiquated policies were significant obstacles to be overcome before lasting democratic change could be realized, and that they, armed with little experience and good motivations, were as yet little equipped to resolve them alone. However, despite these challenges, they were each truly inspiring in their unwavering optimism and commitment to realizing their vision for their country’s future.

Although none of these MPs occupy a senior post in government at the moment, they stressed that their generation of reformers held true leaders that would one day bring the country out of its current troubles. For the moment, they are biding their time – learning and gaining experience in the political process, so that when they finally reach the highest offices, they will be ready to truly lead.

“There is no question that some day we will come (into higher positions),” promised Nayyem. “We will. It is a matter of time… I am happy to have the opportunity to learn. We will play in this game and become much smarter, not to fight – but to win.”

April Gordon is a first year graduate student in CERES, and a graduate of Georgetown SFS.  She specializes in international development in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus.

Event Summary: Central Asian Fighters in Syria

Kate Baughman (MAERES ’18) attended an event hosted by the Central Asia Program at George Washington University entitled “Central Asian Fighters in Syria: Classification, Factors, Scale Assessment” on Monday, September 19. 

On September 19th, Yerlan Karin, Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan, spoke about his organization’s findings on Central Asian fighters in radical Islamist groups in Syria at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He began by outlining the sources of information used in the investigation, namely official data disseminated by Central Asian governments, foreign research, radical Islamist groups’ websites and social media, and most intriguingly, interviews with Kazakh fighters who had been imprisoned for terrorism upon their return from Syria. Official data can be suspect, Karin said, as authorities in countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are reluctant to admit the presence of their citizens among these groups in Syria, while leaders in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan tend to exaggerate figures in order to emphasize the need for increased defensive measures.

Compared to past conflicts in Afghanistan, Karin argued, the radical Islamist cause in Syria is much more conducive to Central Asian involvement. Logistical factors such as sophisticated weapon supply structures, organized training systems and relatively quick and simple travel to the Syrian border have attracted unprecedented levels of Central Asian would-be jihadists. What’s more, many Central Asian governments have debated the merits of restricting the movements of these fighters, preferring that potential terrorists perish abroad rather than create problems at home. Karin argued that these authorities are mistaken in their thinking, as the absence of radicals in Central Asia does not preclude the potential of their presence in Syria to inspire terrorist acts at home.

According to Karin, there are marked differences between the presence and role of Central Asians and those of other ethnic and national origins within radical Islamist groups in Syria. ISIS and Al-Qaeda view Central Asia as recruiting grounds, not as a theater for jihad itself. Central Asians are often more ideologically invested than other groups, and as such are promoted to higher positions in greater proportions. Many Central Asians also attempt to create ethnic substructures within ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The exclusively Uzbek “Jamaat of Imam Bukhari” is one example of this type of subgroup. Lastly, unlike fighters from other regions, Central Asians often bring their wives, children and other family members with them to Syria. This last trend creates a unique set of problems, as the death of fighters in battle leaves many of these family members stranded abroad. Many of the Central Asian women and children left widowed or fatherless by the conflict are then funneled into Islamist training camps in order to become the next generation of fighters.

Interviews with former fighters in Kazakh prisons shed light on the varying motivations and circumstances that lead Central Asian men to leave for Syria to fight. Karin identified three categories of Central Asian men that go on to join ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria. The first two, which he terms “hostages” and “deceived believers,” are the most common types of Central Asian fighters within radical Islamist groups in Syria. Hostages are driven abroad due to monetary or legal troubles, most often falling under the influence of radical groups while working in Russia as migrant laborers. Deceived believers are those who flee to Syria expecting to find a fully-developed and unified Islamic society. This is often followed by disillusionment with infighting among Islamist groups in Syria, and many deceived believers attempt to leave for home within weeks or months of their arrival. The last category of fighters, “fanatics,” are well aware of the circumstances of the war in Syria and are committed to participation in the cause regardless of these factors. With very little resources dedicated to the rehabilitation and reintegration of returning fighters and their families, the increasing numbers of desperate and disillusioned former extremists attempting to return home to Central Asia are already posing problems for governments in the region.

In its unique, multi-vector approach, the investigation outlined by Yerlan Karin provides an important perspective on the motivations, experiences and characteristics of Central Asian fighters within radical Islamist groups in Syria.