The recent World Congress of Compatriots event in Russia raised the issue of how the Russian government could support the interests of Russian compatriots abroad, especially in the post-Soviet space.


Patriarch of Moscow and All of Russia Kirill during the 5th International Congress of Russian Compatriots at the World Trade Center in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

Last week Moscow hosted the Fourth World Congress of Compatriots that brought together Russian-speaking public leaders from 97 countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, took part in the event and emphasized the significance of the Russian Diaspora for government leaders. However, Russian Diaspora leaders and the Kremlin do not always see eye to eye, and the very term "compatriot" is quite ambiguous.

Four waves of Russian emigration

For the Russian authorities, the term "Russian compatriot" implies any person, regardless of nationality, who comes from the previously united Russian state, speaks Russian, and identifies him/herself with Russia. More precise definitions include: having a loyal attitude towards Russia, maintaining contacts with Russia, and preserving spiritual, cultural, and, especially, religious ties with Russia.

When referring to the Russian Diaspora that maintains its contacts with Moscow, the Russian authorities often speak of Pax Russica (or the Russian world).

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Still, Russians who live abroad vary greatly. Cataclysms that plagued Russia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century brought about several waves of emigration. If before 1917 the number of emigrants (mostly to the U.S.) was relatively small and caused by economic reasons (almost all political emigrants including Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia in 1917), after the Great October Revolution, people fled Russia predominantly for political reasons.

There were four waves of emigration: 1) those who fled during the revolution; 2) those who left with the Nazis and prisoners of war (POWs) and who did not return after the end of World War II 3) those who departed primarily for economic reasons during the period 1960-1980 and 4) those who emigrated after 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Back in the 1940s, the Soviet government started working with compatriots. Right after the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin passed a series of laws that provided a mechanism for all former citizens of the Russian Empire and their descendants to obtain Soviet citizenship. He also developed a program that helped "the White emigrants who acknowledged the victory of socialism" return to their motherland. A few of them escaped repressions, and some, like popular singer Alexander Vertinsky, were given a warm welcome.

Russians abroad: The Kremlin’s relationship with emigrants

After the fall of the U.S.S.R., overnight several million people who were not planning on moving anywhere became national minorities with limited rights. Before 1991, almost 40 percent of people living in the Soviet Republics of Latvia and Estonia were Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, or came from other Soviet Republics.

In Kazakhstan, prior to the demise of the Soviet Union, 37 percent of the population was Russian. In Ukraine, most people living in the eastern part of the country hardly knew any Ukrainian and preferred to speak Russian. All these people suddenly became strangers in their own land.

Many, especially those living in Central Asia, had to move to Russia often leaving all their belongings behind. Unlike neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kazakhstan was relatively stable and did not go through civil wars or fight radical Islam. Still, over 1.2 million Russians left the country between 1992 and 1997.

Back then President Boris Yeltsin gave little heed to the problems of post-Soviet Russians. Russia was going through a painful transition to the market economy and did not have the resources to provide any help. In the 1990s, work with compatriots was built around the idea of national reconciliation, which manifested itself in the revision of the Civil War (1918-1922) outcome and the development of cooperation with White emigrant organizations.

Russia actively welcomed surviving aristocrats and the remaining Romanovs and supported the unification of the Russian Orthodox church and the emigrant church founded in 1920s by hierarchs who fled the U.S.S.R.

In August of 1991, the only World Congress of Compatriots in the U.S.S.R. took place. It focused on non-CIS countries instead of discussing the pressing issues faced by Russians in the former Soviet republics.

Only in August of 1994 the Russian President issued a decree on The Main Directions of Russian State Policies Regarding Compatriots Living Abroad. It allocated a negligible amount of money to the support of Russian speakers living in the former Soviet Union and created a government commission designated to work with them.

Only five years later in 1999, a rather vague Federal Law About the Policies of the Russian Federation Regarding Russian Compatriots Abroad was effected.

Thus, until the mid-2000s, Russian speakers living on the territory of the former Soviet Union were actually on their own. Moscow did nothing to back their political aspirations. If they moved to Russia, they faced the impossibility of becoming citizens because when the U.S.S.R. collapsed, they were not registered on the territory of the Russian Federation.

Another serious issue that hindered Russians' fight for their rights has been the lack of consolidation. In Latvia and Estonia, small Russian political parties in 2000s-2010s often competed against each other and refused to form a unified front.

Russia reassesses its policy toward compatriots under Putin

After Putin was elected President, the situation started to change gradually. The Kremlin realized that compatriots living abroad are a source of influence and could be an instrument of soft power. Besides, Russia has been striving to regain its status of a leading world power, so it had to demonstrate its readiness to take care of former Soviet citizens related to it through language or culture.

In October of 2001, the World Congress in Moscow (which, by the way, was officially referred to as the First Congress) welcomed representatives from 47 countries, and focused on the former Soviet republics, defense of the rights of Russian minorities, and the preservation of Russian language and culture. At the Congress, Putin pointed out the need to form a special organization that would work with compatriots.

Nevertheless, the Agency for Compatriots Living Abroad, a separate division of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was created only in 2004, marking the beginning of real assistance to public compatriot organizations and Russian language programs.

In the meantime, the issue with streamlining citizenship acquisition process on grounds of ancestry (the opportunity to obtain citizenship through a simplified process for representatives of indigenous ethnic groups) remained unresolved.

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Moreover, no real help was offered to compatriots who wished to move to Russia. That is why the Second Congress of Compatriots was moved from 2005 to 2006, when the President of Russia adopted the program that supported voluntary immigration to Russia.

The program was widely criticized, and it was claimed that it permitted anyone to move to Russia. However, according to official statistics, since 2006 it has helped more than 350,000 people move to the regions that faced serious demographic  problems (Central Russia, Primorye and the Kaliningrad Oblast).      

The position of the Russian Diaspora dramatically changed after the Bronze Night in April of 2007 when, without any supervision from the Kremlin, the Russian community of Estonia protested against the authorities' decision to remove the monument to a Soviet soldier and liberator from downtown Tallinn. 

The protests led to major civil unrest, and ever since then, Russian activists have been viewed as a potential threat and even as agents of Moscow in many former Soviet republics, and especially the Baltic countries. Previously, such claims were made by nationalist politicians, but now Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian special services started highly public interference with the activities of pro-Russian public organizations.

The Kremlin frequently used the idea of compatriot support to foster Russian foreign policy interests. In March 2014, Moscow used that strategy in Crimea where Russian activists held a referendum on becoming a part of Russia.

Could the Russian Diaspora be an instrument of soft power?

In November 2015, during his opening speech at the World Congress of Compatriots, Putin pointed out that the Russian Diaspora actively supported the reunification of Crimea with Russia. The President did not make any aggressive or political statements. Rather, he summed up the work that has been going on since 2001 and drew attention to the success of the relocation program and specific events supporting Russian-speaking youth and Russian culture and education.

Truly, as of today, a lot has been done to assist the Russia Diaspora in the former Soviet Union. However, many issues have not been resolved, for example, the issue of preferential visa rules (such as Poland introduced for its compatriots).

For the Kremlin, its interaction with the Russian community abroad is hampered by a large number of organizations responsible for communication with Russian speakers in the former Soviet republics and beyond. These include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Cultural Cooperation; local Russian authorities; and various affiliated foundations.

All these organizations have their own take on the issue and compete among themselves. Still, Russia is used to excessive bureaucracy, and amid the plethora of events held by numerous organizations, Russian community leaders have an opportunity to meet new people, establish contacts with Russian officials and promote their projects.

According to Artem Bologov, the head of the Little Russia community in Poland, Russian policies on expatriate support should be more open and transparent and strive to engage compatriots in various commercial projects. Such measures are still overlooked, but they will help the Russian Diaspora act as a liaison between the Russian corporate world and business groups from their countries of residence.

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Clearly, Pax Russica is a humanitarian project, and if it has some room for improvement, it is mostly in the business, not the political, aspect. Moscow also has certain expectations of its compatriots, such as the preservation of cultural and historic ties and the Russian language, as well as the promulgation of a positive image of Russia.

Human rights violations in a number of countries where Russian community leaders faced oppression can be dealt with only in court. For the Kremlin, the main task is to preserve and strengthen its cultural influence both in the former Soviet republics and in non-CIS countries using its main asset - a loyal and closely-knit Russian Diaspora.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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