Earlier this month, Vladimir Putin gave the opening address at the V Global Congress of Compatriots [Vsemirnyi kongress sootechestvennikov], a forum sponsored by the Russian President’s and Prime Minister’s offices. Established in 2001,[i] in Putin’s second year of office, the organization unites persons living outside Russia who feel an affinity toward the Russian Federation and have cultural, linguistic, kinship, or citizenship ties to the country or its predecessors–Tsarist Russia[ii] and the USSR. In his speech to 400 delegates drawn from 97 different countries, Putin made it clear that his responsibilities as president extend beyond the borders of Russia. “Persons [compatriots] living outside of Russia, for whatever reason, should be fully confident: we will always defend your interests, especially in challenging and crisis situations.”[iii]
Appealing in equal parts to the diaspora’s sense of pride and indignation, Putin explained to the representatives of the “huge and varied overseas Russian community”–approximately 30 million strong–that for the Russian state, “a reliable defense of compatriots against any form of discrimination” experienced overseas was a matter of principle. For their part, delegates from overseas reveled in Russia’s new prominence on the world stage and Putin’s muscular foreign policy. As an ethnic Russian from Kyrgyzstan observed, “it used to be that only the lazy failed to spit on Russia, which sapped the spirit of compatriots…but the insolent Saudis and Qataris suddenly understood that they could be smashed to smithereens by rockets from the Caspian fleet! In principle, I’m a pacifist, but I fully support Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin!! I’m happy that Russia has come alive!”[iv]
By appearing personally at the Congress of Compatriots, Putin signaled his support for a range of recent initiatives designed to expand the linkages between the Russian state and its diaspora, and in so doing to strengthen Russia’s soft power capabilities outside its borders. On one level, official policy seeks to nurture the language, culture, and religions of Russia among compatriots living permanently abroad, often in countries of the Near Abroad whose governments have pursued policies of de-russification since the collapse of the USSR. Russian officials lament the fact that the Russian language has declined more rapidly than any other major world language, falling from 350 million speakers in 1985 to 270 million today. As Putin explained in his speech, in order to reverse this trend, the government has recently developed a new program, “The Russian School Abroad,” whose goal is to expose youth in the diaspora to traditional Russian methods of language instruction as well as approaches to Russian history, culture, and geography that align with official narratives advanced by the Russian state. Referencing an essay contest entitled “My Motherland is the Russian Language,” one journalist noted that “geolinguistics has become a part of Russian geopolitics today.” Extending an old saying attributed to Tsar Alexander III, he observed that “besides its two faithful allies, the army and navy, Russia also has a third, which is very strong: the Russian language.”[v]
In order to correct what the Russian political establishment regards as false impressions of their homeland and its foreign and domestic policies, Russia has also made significant investments of late in international broadcasting, including the RT network in English, and in programs that bring young compatriots back to Russia for higher education or for short-term travel. In 2015, Russia reserved 15,000 places in its higher educational institutions for members of the diaspora, and it is expanding its efforts to reach young compatriots outside the country, in part through distance learning and branches of Russian universities abroad. In April of this year, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, the country organized in Sochi the first Global Games for Young Compatriots, which brought together 600 participants from 33 countries. “All of this,” Putin noted in his remarks to the Congress of Compatriots, “serves to strengthen the international authority and influence of our country; it helps to eliminate the stereotypes and prejudices of recent years; and it replaces various propaganda campaigns and cliches about our country with the truth.”[vi]
Besides initiatives designed to heighten the diaspora’s attachment to the “Russian World” [russkii mir], the Putin presidency has vigorously pursued resettlement efforts that encourage compatriots to return permanently to their ancestral homeland. Speaking in Kazakhstan in the early years of his presidency, Putin observed that due to the demographic crisis facing Russia, the country would need to attract up to 50,000,000 additional citizens.[vii] In recent years, significant numbers of labor migrants have moved to Russia from the poorer reaches of the Near Abroad, and in particular from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It is clear, however, that the Russian political establishment would prefer to make up this demographic deficit with immigrants whose linguistic, ethnic, and confessional backgrounds align with the majority population in the country.
Toward this end, both the Russian federal government and the governments of individual regions have developed resettlement programs that facilitate the return of compatriots by assisting with housing and employment. Operating under the umbrella of the “State Program for Offering Assistance for the Volunteer Return to Russia of Compatriots Abroad,” these efforts have resulted in the return over the last eight years of 367,000 persons, of whom 130,000 moved from Ukraine.[viii] Although these numbers are significant–and an additional stream of settlers from Ukraine is underway[ix]–this program is far from eliminating Russia’s demographic deficit, which is felt especially keenly in the sparsely settled areas along the Chinese border.[x]
Putin’s appearance at the Global Congress of Compatriots is a reminder that, in some countries, studies of the presidency must consider not just a leader’s relations with domestic audiences and representatives of foreign states but also those living abroad who remain attached to their homeland. As we have seen in Ukraine over the last two years, the Russian President has been able to mobilize members of the “Russian World” as a means of consolidating Russia’s position in the region and his own political support. How Putin uses these ties to his compatriots in surrounding countries, most notably in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic, will serve as a barometer of his own, and his country’s, ambitions in the region and the world.
[i] Organizers had attempted to launch such a congress in 1991, but its initial meeting was cut short due to the August coup, and the organization never recovered. Mariia Chunikhina, “Chto takoe Vsemirnyi kongress sootechestvennikov?” Argumenty i fakty, 5 November 2015. http://www.aif.ru/dontknows/file/chto_takoe_vsemirnyy_kongress_sootechestvennikov More than 150 local Russian compatriot organizations exist around the world, and the overwhelming majority of their members, according to an official in the Moscow mayor’s office, “support Russia on practically all issues.” Ibid.
[ii] Speaking at the Congress, Count Nikita Lobanov-Rostovskii, a representative of the post-revolutionary emigration, recounted a comment attributed to Vladimir Putin as he passed the grave of a White Guard member in a Parisian cemetery. “These are children of the same mother, Russia, and it’s time for us to unite.” Andrei Kolesnikov, “Voistinu kongress!” Kommersant, 6 November 2015, p. 2. http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2847377
[iii] A transcript of Putin’s address may be found at Vsemirnyi Kongress sootechestvennikov, 5 November 2015. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50639. A transcript of his remarks to the previous congress, delivered on tape to the delegates in 2012, is available at Privetstvie uchastnikam Vsemirnogo kongress sootechestvennikov, 26 October 2012. http://kremlin.ru/catalog/keywords/32/events/16719 One observer remarked that the reception Putin received at the V Congress was even more enthusiastic than that at the All-Russian Popular Front, Putin’s domestic political movement. Elena Egorova, “Russkii mir i russkii marsh,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 5 November 2015, p. 1. http://www.mk.ru/politics/2015/11/05/podnyal-rossiyu-s-kolen-na-sezde-sootechestvennikov-putina-vstretili-ovaciyami.html
[iv] Andrei Kolesnikov, “Voistinu kongress!” For his part, Mikhail Drozdov, the chairman of the Congress and the head of the local group of compatriots in Shanghai, commented that “An aimless and perplexed Russia no longer exists….We are now a people who have again recognized our historical mission….” Elena Egorova, “Russkii mir i russkii marsh.”
[v] Iadviga Iuferova, “Uchit’ nel’zia zabyt’,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 4 September 2015, p. 11. http://www.rg.ru/2015/09/03/pushkin-poln.htm
[vi] Vsemirnyi Kongress sootechestvennikov, 5 November 2015.
[vii] Lidiia Grafova, “Tiazhelo ty, bremia dostepriimstva,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 3 August 2015, p. 14. http://www.rg.ru/2015/08/02/bezhency.htm
[viii] Vsemirnyi Kongress sootechestvennikov, 5 November 2015. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50639
[ix] The figure of 137,000 represents only those Ukrainian citizens who have formally resettled in Russia. The Federal Migration Service indicates that more than a million refugees from Ukraine are now located in Russia. How many will remain in the country depends on the future course of developments in eastern Ukraine. Lidiia Grafova, “Tiazhelo ty, bremia dostepriimstva,” Rossiiskaia gazeta.
[x] The Government recently submitted a draft law to the Duma that would grant citizens up to one hectare of land free of charge in the Far East. “Zakon o razdache zemli na Dal’nem Vostoke mozhet vstupit’ v silu s 1 maia 2016 goda,” Kommersant, 19 November 2015. http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2857367