Russian soft power and the environment of the Baltic Sea

in Debate, News

Last Friday Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated and tweeted that “The Baltic States’ priority for the 21st century — the environment”. “The steady development of the Baltic region can only be ensured if environmental goals are pursued in conjunction with economic and social aims”, Medvedev continued before the opening of the High-level Conference of the Baltic Sea States on the Protection of the Baltic Sea Environment 5-6 April in St. Petersburg.

The “…main goal is to pool the efforts of civil society, government agencies and business and financial circles. We are all aware of our growing interdependence and that we cannot resolve our domestic affairs without considering the interests of our neighbours. Naturally, we all bear responsibility for the future of the Baltic Sea and the people who live on the Baltic Sea coast”.

To all organizations working on Baltic Sea Region cooperation this is a very welcomed statement and commitment which is of course good news.

The current Presidency of the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) seems to have had positively influenced Russia’s interests vis-à-vis the Baltic Sea Region. Looking at the list of activities during the 12 months of the Russian CBSS Presidency – that ends 1 July 2013 – one gets positively surprised. It is a good long list of events: An international Baltic week was organized in St. Petersburg 21-22 March, last week’s high-level Baltic Sea Forum, a Baltic Sea NGO Forum 16-17 April – all of it in St. Petersburg, which is Russia’s impressive Baltic metropolis.

The Kaliningrad is however not forgotten since the CBSS Foreign Ministers meeting will take place in the exclave 5-6 June 2013. At this occasion many other activities are foreseen that do not only take place behind closed doors, including a seminar organized by BDF, as part of the RENSOL project, on “Financing Energy Solutions”, where funding mechanisms and opportunities will be discussed with relevant stakeholders.

The Baltic Sea NGO Forum is going to be an interesting event where the grassroots from all parts of the Baltic area hopefully will have an open and frank exchange of views on all the sensitive issues including human rights. Prime Ministers Medvedev ‘s statement above underlines the importance of the civil society so nobody should apparently fear a rough treatment bearing in mind that the role of NGO in the Russian society is not always a walk in the park, to put it mildly.

Some Baltic observers of Russian foreign policy have been concerned about the draft of the new Russian Foreign Policy Concept (December 2012) and some recent “presidential statements” that put priority on the use of “soft power” as a Foreign policy instrument. What does that mean? And how the Russian CBSS Presidency would exercise this new instrument, the same observers ask.

According to Prof. Joseph Nye, the author of the soft power concept, this instrument is about being “attractive” and a role model for others to follow and for others to adopt similar (democratic and free market) values and cultural practices. It has also an economic aspect to it, namely to influence through the exercise of market forces, and here some might fear Russian energy influence in the Baltic Sea Region, not least in the Baltic States.

Nevertheless, the point to make at this stage and on the day of the Baltic Summit in St. Petersburg is that Russia’s new soft environmental power is welcomed. Russia’s neighbours are most likely already convinced and some will say that the logic probably is the reverse: finally Russia’s neighbours have succeeded with their soft power in convincing Russia to prioritize the environment.

The true testing ground of Russia’s attractiveness is still the Baltic Sea NGO Forum later this month. We will have to see how it goes.

BDF is doing its utmost to attract high-level speakers to our open Summit 29-30 May in Riga. Here the CBSS Presidency would also have the chance to meet business, civil society and governments. We are bidding all Russians welcome. We would have like to be present in St. Petersburg today. Hopefully we will be invited to Kaliningrad in June.

Hans Brask, Director of Baltic Development Forum