With the adoption of the "patriotic stop list" and the subsequent withdrawal of the MacArthur Foundation, Russia's intention to develop its public diplomacy does not match its deeds. And this is a reason for concern.


Alexander Zaldostanov, member of the founding group of Antimaidan public movement, and Oleg Tsaryov, Novorossiya parliament speaker, give during an Antimaidan march in central Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

The list of "undesirable organizations" drawn up by Russia's Federation Council, combined with the subsequent announcement by the MacArthur Foundation of its departure from Russia, can hardly be called a sensation. Given the current policy of the Russian authorities, the sensation is more that the MacArthur Foundation and other similar organizations continued to operate in Russia at all.

The political era in today's Russia is reminiscent of the McCarthy era in 1950s America, when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a campaign to eradicate "hostile" foreign influences. Now, following the MacArthur Foundation's expulsion from Russia, the resemblance of the names makes the connection even more striking.

The departure of the MacArthur Foundation certainly marks the symbolic end of an era. The foundation opened an office in Moscow back in 1991 on the wave of enthusiasm for restructuring and democratic reform. For international philanthropists, Russia seemed a near ideal place to invest time and resources, since the collapse of the old Soviet institutions had created a unique set of circumstances for transformations aimed at "improving" the world.

Although most of these ambitions remained on the drawing board, Western charities stayed active in Russia for a quarter of a century. This was contingent on two conditions: confidence on the part of philanthropists that not all the money was "going down the drain," and neutrality (or least not hostility) on the part of the Russian government with regard to international philanthropy.

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In 2014-2015, as a result of the events in Ukraine and the ensuing crisis in relations between Russia and the West, both these conditions ceased to exist. For the Russian government, any uncontrolled financial flows from Western countries began to look like a potential threat - perhaps even an existential threat - capable of toppling the regime. And no one in the Kremlin was interested in what exactly the charities did, or what scientific and educational projects were jeopardized by the imposition of bans and restrictions.

Philanthropists themselves realized the futility of the situation. Their investments were not "improving" the world, but creating problems for both investors and (even more so) recipients in Russia. NGOs caught taking foreign funds were forced to undergo the humiliating procedure of registering as "foreign agents," while individual recipients were at risk of being charged with "collaboration with the enemy," with unpredictable and unpleasant consequences.

In this climate, the decision taken by the MacArthur Foundation seems quite natural and logical. It is sure to be followed by many – if not all - other Western benefactors still operating on Russian soil. The international Project Russia, born in the crucible of Gorbachev's perestroika, now seems dead and buried.

It is distressing that not only the Russian authorities, but also a significant portion of Russian society have no regrets in this regard. The assertion that Russia can finance its own scientific research and education, and create all the institutions of civil society it needs, seems to many as undisputed as the assertion that Russia can look after all its children in care homes, including ones with disabilities, without the need for adoptive parents from abroad.

MacArthur President Julia Stasch. Photo: The MacArthur Foundation

For many Russians who have never received a grant, either foreign or domestic, the MacArthur Foundation's exit has prompted no emotional response at all, and news about the shortfall of millions of dollars in funding for Russian science is of no consequence to ordinary TV viewers. For them, such figures mean little. The words "million" and "billion" are bandied about so often on the other side of the TV screen, and have no correlation with the size of their far more modest salaries and pensions. 

For the Russian political leadership, meanwhile, the shift towards conscious isolation from the West is becoming increasingly irreversibleThe list of “undesirable” organizations is another big step in that direction. At the same time, the Russian authorities are desperate to create the impression that, far from trying to build a new Iron Curtain, they are open to the "good" outside world, and are fencing the country off only from "bad" and aggressive elements.

To paraphrase Russian President Vladimir Putin, "The wheat is being sorted from the chaff." Russia is activating international cooperation as part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Eurasian community. The "bad" West finds itself juxtaposed with the "good" South and East.

But despite all the efforts, the "good" world remains a largely virtual concept, existing only in the minds of Russian politicians. Many of Russia's non-Western partners are not interested in severing ties with Western civilization, but in cooperating with it. And they are certainly not against Western benefactors operating on their territory.

It is symbolic that the role of the Russian McCarthy, the architect of the "undesirables" list, belongs to Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Federation Council, who some time ago headed Rossotrudnichestvo, one of the key departments in Russia's public diplomatic mission.

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It is well known that international charity is one of the most important channels of public diplomacy, a demonstration of "soft power." Kosachev and his fellow legislators who drafted the list could not have been unaware that by declaring the activity of Russian-based U.S. private charities as undesirable, they were essentially outlawing U.S. public diplomacy in Russia.

Yet public diplomacy is officially listed as a priority of Russian foreign policy, and the Russian authorities intend to pursue it, including in the United States and Europe. Can we expect a "symmetrical response" from the West, including the introduction of restrictions on "hostile" Russian organizations? The implacable logic of the new Cold War suggests that might indeed be a distinct possibility.

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