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Jan 24, 2014 | 19:30 GMT

5 mins read

Russia: Expanding Its Influence Through Education

Russia: Expanding Its Influence Through Education

Moscow has reverted to an old Soviet strategy for expanding Russian regional influence: cultural education and language instruction. If its neighboring populations speak Russian and understand Russian culture, Moscow can more easily strengthen ties, promote propaganda and enhance business relationships, or so the theory goes. But many countries, particularly former Soviet states, which have substantial Russian communities, will not so readily oblige their eastern neighbor. In fact, on Jan. 23 Latvia prohibited Russia from establishing schools in the country, illustrating the difficulty Russia will encounter as it implements its plan.

As part of Russia's resurgence, the Russian Foreign Ministry has undertaken a plan called Russian School Abroad, the purpose of which is to open institutions for Russian language, customs and cultural education in some 50 countries. Ostensibly, the initiative will make it easier for migrant workers to enter Russia and for prospective investors to conduct business there. The Pushkin Institute, a state-owned language center in Moscow, will administer the program under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry, and the government has already disbursed its first tranche of funding, worth roughly $45.9 million.

Russkiy Mir Foundation's Russian Centers

Russkiy Mir Foundation's Russian Centers

Notably, similar centers already exist, though they are operated and funded by different entities, such as the Kremlin-backed Russkiy Mir Foundation. For example, institutes in Paris, London and New York offer courses for businessmen, investors and lawyers who want to learn Russia's language and business practices. Russia also runs language centers in countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These centers are meant to help ease the transition from immigrants' home countries and to reverse the decline in Russian language proficiency. They may also help immigrants pass language and cultural knowledge tests, which some in Russia want to impose on immigrants before they can obtain work permits.

Russian School Abroad has identified the first countries to host its pilot program. An assistant dean at the Pushkin Institute has said that he had received so many requests for language exchanges and cooperation from Germany, France, Belgium, Bosnia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Egypt, Sudan, Thailand and Saudi Arabia that it would be logical to start in those countries.

Potential Pushback

The program is hardly a novel strategy. The Soviet Union promoted language and culture to maintain influence in its periphery. (The Soviet Union also supported Russian language and Soviet culture programs in client states in Africa, Latin America and East Asia.) The fifteen Soviet Republics under the Soviet Union were forced to adopt to the Cyrillic alphabet in 1917, and by 1960 the Soviet educational system used the Russian language exclusively. The goal was to create a common identity among the union's various populations, uniting them as one under Moscow's jurisdiction. When the Soviet Union collapsed, minority languages were rarely seen in formal school settings.

Once again, Russia is trying to bolster its influence in nearby countries with large Russian populations. But these countries will likely try to push back. The most important is Ukraine, which is currently experiencing nationalist (and tacitly anti-Russian) protests. Russian is the most widely used language in many important Ukrainian regions, such as Donetsk and Crimea. In 2012, a controversial law gave the Russian language official status in some regions, though it was not passed nationally. In 2012, a poll by Ukrainian sociological group RATING showed that 55 percent of respondents listed Ukrainian as their native language, compared to 40 percent who listed Russian. Indeed, Ukraine is deeply split over the issue of language and how it pertains to its struggle between Eastern and Western orientations.

Another country torn between the West and Russia is Moldova. Roughly 30 percent of the population of Transdniestria, the country's pro-Russia secessionist region, is ethnically Russian. The European Union wants to integrate with Moldova further by expanding trade agreements in 2014, though Russia will obstruct those plans.

But perhaps the countries that will push back on Russia the hardest are the Baltic states. The countries each have sizable Russian or Russian-speaking populations — 27 percent, 25 percent and less than 10 percent for Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, respectively — and host Russian language programs. Moscow has repeatedly tried to use these populations to meddle in Baltic affairs. In 2012, there was an incident in Estonia where a wiretapping device was found in a cultural center for Russian-speaking citizens — a center run by a family member of Tallinn's vice mayor, who has been accused of lobbying for Russian interests.

Officials from the Baltic states were quick to comment on the Russian School Abroad initiative. Lithuania's Education Ministry said that its country already offers Russian language programs in 65 general schools, but any foreign language program would be under the guise of the "Lithuanian government only." An Estonian Ministry of Education and Research official noted that foreign countries may set up schools in Estonia so long as they comply with Estonian and international rules. (Moscow has yet to present Estonia with a proposal officially.) Latvia came out against the plan strongly, calling it unacceptable and refusing to grant any permits or licenses.

In a recent speech about Russian School Abroad, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov specifically mentioned that the program would focus on Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — a sign that Russia does not intend to ease the pressure it puts on the Baltics anytime soon. Baltic leaders recognize Moscow's intentions, so they will continue to block Russian advances. Consequently, the plan may be more successful in other states in Russia's periphery than it will be in the Baltics. 

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