[lg policy] Arab ambassadors for Russian interests

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Jan 8 10:13:34 EST 2018


Arab ambassadors for Russian interests
The Kremlin is seeking to spread its influence abroad through its foreign
cultural work. The plan is working brilliantly in the Middle East, says
Joseph Croitoru

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The concept of the "Great Geopolitical Game" is integral to today's
government discourse in Russia. The phrase refers to the foreign policy aim
pursued by President Vladimir Putin to once again position his country as a
global superpower. This "game" also includes the Kremlin's realignment of
its foreign cultural policy, manifested in 2008 by the restructuring of the
competent authority.

At that time, the Russian Centre for International Cooperation in Research
and Culture (Rossarubeschzentr) was turned into the Federal Agency for the
CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation
(Rossotrudnichestvo) and placed under the jurisdiction of the Russian
Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This government agency is pursuing a massive expansion course as Moscow
apparently tries to hark back to the days when the Soviet Union wielded
global influence as leader of the socialist world revolution. Soviet
experience and old contacts are therefore being re-activated, albeit using
modern methods and contemporary rhetoric.

Tellingly, the head of Rossotrudnichestvo since 2015, Lyubov Glebova, began
her political career in the Komsomol, or Young Communist League. In the
Soviet era, this political training organisation also played an important
role in international educational work.

*Russia's cultural offensive in the Middle East*

The Russian cultural offensive is particularly evident in the Middle East,
where Moscow is asserting greater military power. Many Russian cultural
centres have been opened since 2009 in Arab countries where none previously
existed. Examples include Jordan, the Palestinian territories (West Bank),
and most recently the United Arab Emirates in 2012. There have been Russian
cultural centres in Egypt and Syria since the 1960s.

The realignment of Moscow's cultural policy has led to an increase in both
the number of staff deployed to the Middle East and their professionalism.
In addition, Moscow's foreign cultural work has been receiving media
support, in particular from the TV channel Russia Today and the news portal
Sputnik, most comprehensively in the respective Arab-language versions.
[image: The Rossotrudnichestvo logo]
Rossotrudnichestvo, the cultural policy mouthpiece of the Kremlin:
"This government agency is pursuing a massive expansion course as Moscow
apparently tries to hark back to the days when the Soviet Union wielded
global influence as leader of the socialist world revolution. Soviet
experience and old contacts are therefore being re-activated, albeit using
modern methods and contemporary rhetoric," writes Joseph Croitoru

The fact that these Kremlin mouthpieces have close links to the
Rossotrudnichestvo agency is demonstrated by the number of former agency
employees who now hold key positions in Russian cultural institutions in
the Arab world, especially in those cases where these employees speak
Arabic. The director of the Cairo centre, Alexei Tevanyan, for instance,
was an editor at Russia Today in 2009 and 2010.

Besides educating the public about Russian culture in all its many facets –
where possible, with a certain political slant – Moscow culture officials
stationed in Arab countries are trying to forge ties with schools and
institutions of higher education. Russian has thus been introduced as a
subject at several Arab universities in recent years.

In Syria – a major focus of Russian foreign policy in the region – a
Russian language and culture course was launched at the University of
Damascus in 2014. Only recently, in October 2017, a Centre for the Russian
Language was established there as well. The tasks of this new centre
include training Syrians to become Russian teachers. They are needed in the
growing number of Syrian schools where Russian is being taught as an
elective since 2014.

*Construing long-standing cultural ties*

The Rossotrudnichestvo actively promotes study in Russia for foreign
students and is awarding more and more scholarships to Arab students. Young
Arabs' interest in Russian culture is rising accordingly. One of the
reasons why Moscow is currently so active in fostering this interest is
because many of the Russian-speaking Arabs who studied in Russia in Soviet
times and later went on to hold influential posts back home have retired by
now – although they still remain an important pillar and are often
mobilised as "ambassadors" of Russian culture and state interests in the
Arab world. They pass on their knowledge and contacts to the younger
generation not only in the context of the relevant alumni associations but
also in books that cast Russian–Arab relations in a sympathetic light.

In these books and in exhibitions too – most of which gloss over the
Communist era – the attempt is made to construe long-standing cultural ties
between Russians and Arabs that go back several centuries. In the case of
Palestine, there is even talk of Russia's age-old connections with the Holy
Land that stretch back thousands of years.
[image: Mahmoud Abbas, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin at the
opening of the Moscow Jum'ah (Cathedral) Mosque in 2015 (photo: Reuters)]
"The Palestinian Authority is easy terrain for Moscow's cultural officials,
because they have a particularly prominent friend there: Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas, who was already part of the PLO leadership back
when it was supported by the Soviet Union," writes Joseph Croitoru.
Pictured here: Mahmoud Abbas, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin at
the opening of the Moscow Jum'ah (Cathedral) Mosque in 2015

The Palestinian Authority is easy terrain for Moscow's cultural
officials because they have a particularly prominent friend there:
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was already part of the PLO
leadership back when it was supported by the Soviet Union. Abbas studied
history in Moscow and wrote a dissertation there in the 1980s in the spirit
of the Soviet government-mandated anti-fascism, discussing "secret
relations" between the Nazis and the Zionists.

President Putin paid a visit to Abbas in Ramallah in 2005, and in 2010,
Russia acquired a large plot of land in Jericho from the old holdings of
the Russian Orthodox Church and built on it a Russian history museum with
lavish gardens. It is located on a street named after the then Russian
President Dmitri Medvedev. Medvedev visited Jericho in 2011 to officially
open the museum.

During Putin's visit to the Palestinian territories in 2012, it was said
that the aim of the museum was also to strengthen the Russian presence in
the Holy Land. Each of the two sections of the exhibition there suggests in
its own way that this relationship goes back a very long time,

On display, for example, are historical photos from the 19th and early 20th
centuries of Russian pilgrims to Jerusalem who had their pictures taken at
the Temple Mount. Also presented are archaeological finds from the museum
grounds that can be traced back to a Byzantine church that once stood
there. In line with the Neo-Byzantinism propagated by the Russian
government, these exhibits conjure up relations reaching back thousands of
years between the Russians – the historical heirs to the Byzantine Empire –
and the Holy Land. The museum has long been a mandatory stop for Russian
"Bible travellers".

*Promoting the study of Russian in the Middle East*

As in Damascus, a centre for Russian language and culture was opened in
Jericho in October, at Al Istiqlal University. The idea for this centre
came from the chairman of the university's board of trustees, Tawfiq al
Tirawi.

A Fatah official and general, Tirawi was Yassir Arafat's right-hand man and
the first head of intelligence for the Palestinian Authority. Although he
did not himself study in Soviet Russia, as a member of the Fatah elite, he
must certainly have had contacts to the country. Tirawi wants to make
Russian Studies a major academic focus at the university in Jericho. The
plan is that members of the PA security forces will also be educated there.
[image: Presidents Assad and Putin meet in Sochi in November 2017 (photo:
Reuters/Sputnik/M. Klimentyev)]
Long-standing ties: There have been Russian cultural centres in Egypt and
Syria since the 1960s. Syria is a major focus of Russian foreign policy in
the region: a Russian language and culture course was launched at the
University of Damascus in 2014 and a Centre for the Russian Language, which
among other things trains Syrians to become Russian teachers, was opened in
2017

Closer co-operation between Fatah cadres and the Russian security
authorities can therefore be expected, further reinforcing the already
lively bilateral cultural exchange. In addition to Jericho, Bethlehem also
has a Russian cultural centre, which Putin inaugurated during his visit in
2012.

In May 2017, Bethlehem acquired yet another Russian institution, the Putin
Foundation for Culture and Economics, the headquarters of which
were officially opened by the Russian President and his Palestinian
counterpart via video transmission when they met in Sochi. The building in
Bethlehem is located on Putin Street, thus named in 2012.

That same year, Russian was launched as a subject at An-Najah National
University in Nablus, located on terrain governed by the Palestinian
Authority. The initiator was the historian of ideas Amr Mahamid, who
studied in Leningrad and today lives in Israel. In addition to lecturing at
the university in Nablus, Mahamid has also been active for many years as an
unofficial cultural ambassador for Russia in his Palestinian hometown of
Umm al Fahm (today located in Israel), where he runs a small Russian
cultural centre. Mahamid, whose father was a founding member of the
Israeli-Arab Communist Party in his hometown, has published several books
on Russian–Palestinian cultural relations.

One of them is about the history of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society
founded in 1882, which under its present leader, Sergei Stepashin, a former
Russian Prime Minister, has for some time been portraying itself as a
symbol of longstanding Russian–Arab friendship. In April, Stepashin visited
Damascus and announced the opening of a local branch of the society and a
Russian school there.

Generally speaking, Russian–Syrian cultural relations are well and truly
alive in the Syrian capital at the moment. The two sides are celebrating
being comrades-in-arms once again and hailing their joint victory over
"terrorism" – for example in photography exhibitions such as "Syria Will
Triumph", which was shown at several venues in Russia and was recently on
view in Damascus.

*Joseph Croitoru*

*© Qantara.de 2017*

*Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor*


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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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