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Russia Just Displayed Serious 'Soft Power' With a Moscow Parliamentary Forum - It's More Important Than You Think

Russia is capitalizing on vast reserves of soft power inherited from the USSR, just as the US's image suffers one blow after another due to an unbridled militarism and stoking of global war and conflict. 'Soft Power' is the the new buzzword among Russian elites, and they are intent on creating more of it - they smell blood.

The event we will discuss in this essay received virtually no coverage in Western media and, in fact, got rather meager coverage even in Russian media, being overshadowed by other, more popular developments such as preparations for football’s World Cup and the annual live Q&A of Vladimir Putin with the nation, called “Direct Line” which came two days later but was getting a lot of advance air time to encourage the public to send in videos and text questions.

Moreover, it was known that The Boss would not make an appearance at the Forum but would instead be in Austria on his first state visit abroad since his election. This surely diminished the Forum’s newsworthiness to the general public. The only intensive Russian television presence at the Forum was the little studio taking interviews for the “Parliamentary Hour” an informational show about Duma activities broadcast weekly on the state channel Rossiya-1/Vesti 24.

Finally, and conclusively, the Forum was the first of its kind and its outcome beyond a rather anodyne Declaration prepared in advance was unforeseeable.

However, the Forum was a big deal if measured by several objective parameters. It attracted serious delegations from national parliaments around the world, including several major countries. Sixteen of the delegations were headed by the Speakers of the respective assemblies.

To be sure, many of those countries with delegations headed by the speakers of their parliaments are minor players:  Mongolia, Ecuador, Armenia, Namibia, Rwanda, Uruguay, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, South Ossetia.  But on the other side of the argument there was a large delegation from Mexico, whose Speaker made a substantial and very friendly speech at the start of the Forum. More to the point, at the Round Table on Latin America, a Mexican deputy said very plainly that the United States has shown itself to be “unfriendly” and the country now looked to improve relations with Russia, first in the economic area.

It is also bears mention, that several important  regional parliamentary assemblies represented by their directors spoke out in the Plenary Sessions. I have in mind in particular the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Conference and the Central American Parliament.  In addition, regional economic groups including Mercosur were represented.

The Forum organizers did not publish the names of participants or list the countries attending, so a precise tally is not possible. But it is safe to say that the guest legislators came from 95 countries and, together with a contingent of 115 foreign ‘experts,’ of which I was one, they numbered in total approximately 600 participants.  Add to that the Committee chairpersons from Russia’s State Duma and highly visible deputies from all of the parties who appear regularly on Russian domestic television. For this reason, it is obvious that the Russian establishment held out great hopes for the Forum,

In this essay, it is my intention to share my impressions of the event, which was an outstanding proof of the reality of Russian “Soft Power” today.  Remarkably, this Soft Power has emerged despite all of the efforts by the US-led “international community” to isolate Russia going back to 2014 and to paint the country as a pariah in a vicious information campaign. But there is a paradox in that Russia’s new Soft Power has risen to the level I witnessed in the Forum at the very time when American Soft Power is collapsing with equally remarkable speed due to the sole reliance on Hard Power of the current US administration.  Indeed, it may well be argued that the two phenomena are directly linked in an inverse relationship.

As an independent observer, I will describe not only the achievements and possible follow-on developments from this first Forum but also the irksome flaws in management of the event that I saw, and also felt firsthand.

* * * *

At the very outset, it is essential to place the new achievements of Russian Soft Power that I witnessed in an historical perspective.

The old Soviet Union had vast reserves of Soft Power:  the internationalism and Marxist value system that it promoted found resonance in “progressive forces of humanity” around the world, particularly in what was described as the Non-aligned Countries or Developing Countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, to a lesser degree among Left-oriented political forces in the First World.

These positive credits were, of course, offset in part by the very negative public relations which accrued to the Soviet Union from its military interventions in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia against the Prague Spring in 1968 and later in its murderous campaign in Afghanistan after 1980.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, both positive and negative Soft Power balances were erased. The new Russian Federation entered into a period of severe economic depression and political chaos in the 1990s which sharply impacted the country’s hard power assets and precluded any efforts to develop Soft Power, which is generally an expensive exercise by itself.

In the new millennium, President Vladimir Putin began his mandate with a priority on restoring order domestically, including restoration of order in the armed forces.  The resuscitation of Russian military strength required extensive organization changes and also heavy investment in men and materiel. This showed its first, still tentative and unpersuasive results during the Russian-Georgian War in 2008. Further reorganization and investments in the military during the years immediate following brought the anticipated results already in 2014, when Russia won control of the Crimea through impeccable execution of psychological warfare. Russia’s twenty thousand troops on the peninsula disarmed Ukrainian forces of nominally equal strength with hardly a shot fired and no reported casualties. And further proof of the recovery of Russian armed forces for conventional warfare came during the intervention in the Syria civil war that began in September 2015. Russian military advisers, state of the art air-defense systems, jet fighters equipped with smart munitions and cruise missiles launched from ships in the Mediterranean and as far away as the Caspian Sea successfully turned the tide on the Islamic State and terrorist US and Saudi-backed opposition groups, enabling the Syrian army of Bashar el-Assad to take back much of the territory and nearly 90% of the remaining population in the country.

The culmination of the process of reestablishing Russian hard power came during the 1 March 2018 address of Vladimir Putin to the joint session of the country’s legislature, when the President detailed at length the new strategic weapons systems that Russia has in the pipeline or is already beginning to deploy. These systems, which include hypersonic cruise missiles, are, in Putin’s words, unstoppable by all current defenses of adversaries and ensure the country’s full nuclear parity with the United States, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars which Washington has spent since 2002 in a bid to acquire first nuclear strike capability and so change the strategic power balance irrevocably in its favor.

By comparison, since the millennium, Russian efforts to re-build Soft Power were given modest resources and showed negligible results for some time.  There are sound objective reasons why this was so: Russia’s own uncertainty over its identity and proper place in the world.

One might say that not until 2008 did Vladimir Putin turn away from the long hoped-for safe haven in the Western world. Now Russia set out determinedly on its own path as a Eurasian power that is not embedded in any alliances, This entailed a genuine, as opposed to rhetorical, “pivot to Asia” of Russian foreign and economic policy. The special relationship with China that has been growing steadily in all dimensions is only the most visible and single largest manifestation of that recalibration of Russian national interests and identity.

What we have seen is the realization of Putin’s response to the shabby and ill-informed attempts of US President Barack Obama to denigrate Russia by calling it just a “regional power.”  Vladimir Putin famously shot back at the time:  “and of which region?”  - meaning that Russia is actively present in multiple regions on the borders of a national territory that comprises one-tenth of the world’s land mass.

The “Russian World” quasi-NGO was an early effort to project Moscow’s Soft Power in the “Near Abroad” by defending the culture and interests of Russian-speakers in the Former Soviet Union.  That was small in scope and invisible to the wider world except for the Baltic States and Poland which were seeking to identify signs of Russian revisionism to denounce.

The creation of the global broadcaster Russia Today (RT) in 2005 was a more ambitious exercise in Soft Power, though it has conceptual weaknesses that have prevented its acquiring more than token audiences in the United States and other Western countries. Notwithstanding that reality, RT has been played up by US and Western politicians as a source of “dis-information” that these robust defenders of truth must suppress. The cat-and-mouse game with RT has been pursued most vigorously in the United Kingdom and the USA, where the broadcaster’s licenses are under constant threat.

A far more successful project in Russian Soft Power has been the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which dates from 1997 but which assumed a national and global prominence when it came under presidential patronage in 2005. This Forum has grown steadily in scale and political as well as economic weight over the years despite setbacks such as occurred after Western sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014.  Nonetheless, in the past couple of years growth resumed strongly and the 2018 edition was the largest ever, with more than 17,000 participants and more than 30 billion euros in business contracts concluded.

The annual Eastern Economic Forum launched in Vladivostok in 2015 and the Yalta International Economic Forum launched in 2016 similarly act as regional magnets for foreign investment and trade. Some 3,000 participants from 60 countries came to Yalta this year for the Forum.

The greatest number of participants in these Economic Forums are, by definition, international and Russian businessmen. However, the Forums also have a significant political dimension from the especially invited heads of state and political leaders coming from abroad, This year’s Petersburg Forum was particularly defined by the featured speakers in the plenary sessions, including  President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and IMF Director Christine Lagarde. Their presence assured a certain minimum level of media coverage in their own countries and in the wider world.  The 2018 Eastern Economic Forum in September will host Chinese President Xi Jinping, and that surely will attract other prominent politicians from the region who have their own reasons to meet with Xi. And yet, given the emphasis on investment and large trade deals, these Forums are by nature an outreach by Russia primarily to First World countries.

By contrast, Russia’s cultivation of Soft Power through its hosting of international sporting events have constituted outreach to the whole world.  Major sports cut across all political, religious, racial, gender and other divisions. But their very popularity and openness have made success or failure of these managerial and financial investments very dependent on the state of play in global information space.  And that has been the Achilles heel:  the case in point is the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics which were subjected to massively hostile Western reporting before, during and after.   Doping allegations have followed the Games for years in the world press and in the Olympic instances, with some Russian athletes being stripped of their medals only last year.  The estimated $50 billion which Russia invested to build the infrastructure for the Games eventually will be recouped now that Sochi has well established itself as a world-class year-round resort. But the goodwill investment was tarnished.  It remains to be seen whether Russia’s Western adversaries will find some way to spoil the Soft Power benefits Russia hopes to capture in the forthcoming football World Cup.

Meanwhile, the State Duma Forum on Development of Parliamentarism held in Moscow a week ago was a global Soft Power outreach that is less prone to sabotage and can be played closer to the chest..

In effect, the Forum on Parliamentarism was particularly directed to parts of the world which constituted the Soft Power reserves of the old Soviet Union -  Africa and Latin America. We saw this both in terms of who came and who didn’t, and by the very structure of the working sessions.

Delegations of parliamentarians from Latin America and Africa were clearly the heroes of the day. Special Round Tables were dedicated precisely to them and not to any other region of the world. By contrast, Asian presence was substantially less important.  And in particular the presence of Indian and Chinese deputies was hardly felt.  In the latter case, one might imagine this weak presence had to do with the less than democratic system of governance in China. But for India, known generally as “the world’s biggest democracy” to have had a low profile takes some explaining.

No deep thinking is required, however, to understand the absence of two other “elephants” in the democratic world:  the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament.  The Congress appears to have been totally absent, which is not surprising given the nearly universal anti-Russian mind-set of American legislators. The European Parliament was absent as an institution, though individual EP deputies were present in considerable numbers in a private capacity.

Finally, to put the Duma Forum in perspective, as became clear from the speeches made during the opening and closing Plenary Sessions, this Forum was the culmination of a many years long process by which the Duma has been building bilateral relations with the parliaments of many countries around the world including mutual visits of deputies.  What was new and exciting was that this was the first time all of these separate relationships came together in one place, and all of Russia’s counter parties could appreciate the broad and deep ties which the country has developed with foreign partners in the face of all Western efforts to contain Russia.

The Soviet Union all over again?

In the working Section 3 in which I participated, a 70-ish, grey headed Russian deputy took the microphone and announced with no apparent connection to the ongoing proceedings but with great gusto that “Russia is today as strong as was the Soviet Union!”  However, the relevance of his remark could be found in the pronounced internationalism of the event, in the substantial presence of people of color and of those like the contingents from the Gulf States who wore national dress.

Indeed, this was an event at which the representatives of Russia’s present day Communist Party could take immense pride.  In this regard, the presence at the Forum of Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov merited attention.  Standing for photos with an Arab delegation during one of the coffee breaks, he was beaming. One of his close collaborators, CP Presidium member Leonid Kalashnikov, chair of the Duma Committee on relations with the CIS, was very much in evidence during the two days of the Forum proceedings. Like Zyuganov, he is one of the most easily recognizable personalities in the Party due to his regular appearances on the major talk shows.

However, it must be stressed that the internationalism of the Duma Forum was worlds apart from the political culture of the old Soviet Union. This was a gathering that was not called by Communists and did not consist of Communist Party members, other than those few from among the Russian deputies and the North Korean, Chinese and Cuban deputies.

The many different national delegations from Developing Countries represented every political persuasion.  And the legislator-participants also represented all of the Duma parties.

From among the deputies of United Russia, several of the party’s most influential thinkers, who also are among the most widely seen on television, were present for most of the two days. I have in mind Deputy Chair of the Duma Irina Yarovaya, Chair of the Committee on Education on Science (and former director of the NGO “Russian World”) Vyacheslav Nikonov and member of the Committee on International Affairs Sergey Zheleznyak. And, of course, the key speakers at the Forum were both from United Russia:  Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin and Deputy Chairman Pyotr Tolstoy. The invitations to ‘experts’ were issued by Tolstoy who, for those interested in such details of cultural continuity, just happens to be the great-grandson of the writer.

Then another omnipresent figure was the leader of the Duma bloc of the LDPR ultra-nationalists Vladimir Zhirinovsky.  To be sure, he had a dour demeanor throughout, because internationalism in the sense of the Soviet Union has long been one of his bête-noires. To Zhirinovsky, the foreign policy of the USSR was wrong-headed insofar as the country subsidized its friends abroad massively at the expense of the Russian citizenry.  However, there were in the European delegations a good number of politicians who could give Zhirinovsky and not the Communists reason to cheer.

If I may cut to the quick, the political complexion of the European Parliament and national deputies participating in the Forum varied between Center Right and Far Right. There were numerous deputies from Germany’s Alternativ fuer Deutschland, not one from Die Linke. Plenty of members of France’s Front National party, only a small minority of the Center Right Republicans and no Socialists. The one Republican who made his presence felt as Section moderator, Thierry Mariani, is typical in being atypical on Russia matters: he happened to be the organizer of a group visit to Crimea of French Senators and National Assembly members in 2015.

The absence of the Left at the Forum reflects perfectly the reality in European politics, which is very similar to American politics:  the Left is almost to a wo/man converted to “universal values” and democracy promotion, which axiomatically means condemnation of “authoritarians” and cultural traditionalists like Vladimir Putin. To my knowledge, the only Left-leaning European attendees of the Forum were to be found among the contingent of “experts,” not legislators.

In the case of the European parliamentarians, who came as private individuals, their presence was a kind of self-selection. And yet there is no denying, that the Right and Extreme Right parties they represent are favored by the Putin administration when United Russia aligns with fellow-thinking parties in Europe. This is quite apart from the question of possible financial assistance from the Kremlin to such parties, as was documented in the case of Marine Le Pen’s Front National.  It is not accidental or irrelevant to mention that on his European Parliament web page, Bruno Gollinsch noted that he had a meeting with both VyacheslavVolodin and Pyotr Tolstoy after the Forum closed.  Gollinsch was one of the more visible FN participants in Section 3 of the Forum, where I sat. For those who instinctively assume that FN politicians are, as populists, akin to heavy handed Trumpians, I point out that during our session Gollinsch vigorously defended freedom of speech in the face of censorious champions of human rights who participated as ‘experts’.

We may conclude that any resemblance of the Duma Forum on Parliamentarism to Soviet style internationalism was merely superficial. The reason for its being called into existence was both current and urgent, as we were told explicitly during introductory remarks at the opening Plenary Session. Duma Chairman Volodin insisted that “parliamentary diplomacy” today is a much needed supplement to official government to government diplomacy which is foundering as the world order stumbles into blind alleys and communications between nations have broken down.  Parliamentary contacts are essentially people-to-people diplomacy. They are horizontal rather than vertical diplomacy.  Unlike state-to-state diplomacy, which is directed by governments and represents the policies of the ruling party or coalition, parliamentary diplomacy can involve all parties in the legislatures including opposition parties. This makes it far easier to find interlocutors in today’s highly confrontational world.

Structure of the Forum as a “mock-up”

Reading through the draft agenda of the Forum which was sent out to invitees with their registration papers, it was crystal clear that it could not be a functional working event, but was constructed to test the waters, to see whether the initiative could find participants at the desired rank and political weight.

I only attended two sessions:  Section 3 and Round Table on Latin America. I do not pretend that my observations are comprehensive but I believe from talking to other participants that they are accurate in a directional sense.

Each of the 3 Sections which formed the core working program of the Forum was a hodge-podge of topics.

Section 1 on “Legislative Support” would attempt to deal with digitalization, artificial intelligence, fake news, cryptocurrencies, money laundering and terrorist financing, self-driving vehicles. 

Section 2 on “Strengthening International Security” would discuss international terrorism,  fighting the drug threat, nuclear non-proliferation and arms control, and ensuring international information security in cyberspace, among other topics. 

And Section 3 on “Development of National Legislation” welcomed speeches by participants on any of the following: strengthening institutes of parliamentary democracy, cooperation between central and regional legislative bodies, preserving the nation and increasing human capital, the protection of women’s right, and inter-parliamentary interaction.

I mentioned above two of the Round Tables, on Russia and the Africa Union and on Interparliamentary Cooperation between Russia and Latin America. Three further Round Tables addressed Legislative Support for Mass Media, Youth Policies and International Humanitarian Law.  In practice, these Round Tables differed hardly at all in format from the Sections.

People invited to events like the Forum are not stupid and the impossibility of anything constructive emerging from working groups structured in this way was patently clear to all.  Over breakfast on the day after the Forum closed, I went up to one of the seven deputies from Botswana and asked for his opinion of the experience:  without thinking for a minute he said, “The Sections had no focus.”

Nonetheless, in my own Section 3, there was one stand-out subject which did capture the imagination of participants - gender politics. We heard from a number of African deputies about attempts in their countries to encourage equal female participation in politics. In one case, 50-50 allocation of seats in parliament is even set out in the constitution. And this led us to a lively discussion of whether there should be quotas for women enforced by the state, or whether rising numbers of female deputies should be left to evolve without forcing the pace simply on the basis of  equal competitive merits as the educational and labor markets broadened out.

The Russian organizers of the Forum clearly anticipated this issue, as well they might given that so many of the African parliamentary speakers they were inviting happen to be women. It was surely no accident that women deputies from the State Duma were assigned as moderators or speakers at the Forum. One such case was Tatyana Pletnyova, Chairwoman of the Duma Committee on Questions of the Family, Women and Children. Pletnyova spoke to our Section passionately about her life experience as an elected representative of the people. Her presence also conveniently served our hosts as a demonstration of the principle that the governing party, United Russia, has conceded a good number of Duma committee chairmanships to deputies from other parties.  Pletnyova happens to be a member of the Communist Party.

Among the Sections, perhaps the most tightly defined was Section 1, in particular the technology-related headings. But here a failure of the Forum’s organizational concept was manifest.  In cutting edge technologies, sharing best practices makes no sense when the world’s most advanced economies are not present. Even the “Analytical Materials for Working Events of the Forum” distributed to all participants prove this:  the footnotes for the Section 1 materials are mostly citations from American professional literature.

“Friends of Russia” as stage decoration

Those of us who received by email scanned letter invitations to participate in the Forum from Duma Deputy Chair Pyotr Tolstoy scratched our heads over whether it was worthwhile accepting given that we were asked to prepare a ‘two to three minute’ speech on any topic in one of the Sections.  There was a certain illogic to spending four days on the road for the sake of two minutes before a microphone, even if, as finally was made clear, our travel and lodging costs would be covered by the hosts.

However, for the doubters among us, our egos were flattered by the parallel communication from the local Russian embassy urging us to accept the invitation and then following up a week later to see that we had done so.  It looks as if the resources of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were in overdrive to ensure that all ‘experts’ were on board the Forum project.

It was only during the networking hour surrounding Registration and preceding the Opening Plenary Session that we ‘experts’ recognized one another and understood we had been herded into the Forum project in our capacity as “Friends of Russia” who happened to have some local or international standing and perhaps enough gray hairs to look serious.

I spotted at once many of my fellow travelers to Crimea as international observers of the 18 March presidential elections.  Here was the promoter of Russian culture in his native Afghanistan, here as well the two Liga deputies from the Veneto region of Italy, plus the pro-Russian Serbian opposition party activist ladies, and more.

Just why our presence was so essential became clear over the course of the Section sessions:  we were there as a decoration to fill the Section rooms for the benefit of the parliamentary delegation leaders who floated through the Sections and were immediately given the microphone to make their little speeches which may or more likely may not have had anything to do with the subject matter of our Section. We were kept ‘warm’ and promised the opportunity to deliver our brilliant two minute speeches, which was realized in fact at the very end of the program. And so most seats were occupied to the very end, making for the appearance of success.

I mention all of this to signal to the organizers, who will be copied, that their cynicism was not lost on us and that you can do this once and never again, unless of course you move the venue of the Forum to some much more exotic and desirable location like Bali.

What comes next?

Considering that this first ever Forum was successful in attracting some powerful national delegations which were well disposed to Russia and to the very idea of parliamentary diplomacy, I believe that the Forum initiative will be repeated next year and regularly thereafter.  In parallel, there will apparently also be dedicated separate parliamentary Forums focused on Russia-Latin American and Russia-Africa.

As for the global Forum, the Duma organizers seem to be of two minds, as we heard from Deputy Chair Pyotr Tolstoy in closing remarks.  The Forum may be held again in Moscow….or it may be held “in some other world capital.”  Bearing in mind the two missing Elephants and the difficulty in sharing best practices in some very important areas like cyber security and artificial intelligence when the USA and Europe are absent, a solution whereby the Forum is held outside Russia may have definite merit.

Time will tell.

Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see

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