People-to-people diplomacy in cultural relations between the West and Russia

01 October 2018

Erik Vlaeminck, Researcher with SYM Consulting, currently in Tyumen, Russia (pictured), offers his observations on the importance of people-to-people exchange in Russian-Western relations.

Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2013, relations between the West and Russia have been deteriorating at a seemingly uncontrollable speed. The underlying dynamics of this ongoing conflict have been discussed elsewhere. This piece however, aims to shed light on people-to-people relations - a rarely discussed aspect of current relations between the West and Russia. While political divide and growing misunderstanding on both sides have been provoking doomsday scenarios of a potential escalation, people-to-people relations seem to have become a final area of mutual understanding and a powerful example of how cultural relations can provide a potential platform to overcome the widening political gap between the West and Russia.

The current troubled relationship is far from the first period of crisis between the West and Russia in recent history, nor will it be the last. A recurring tendency, however, in such times of crisis, has been the persistence of strong people-to-people relations. In the not so far past, during the Cold War, people -to-people relations proved to be an important element in easing relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. Robert Fuller, an American physicist who travelled several times to the Soviet Union during the seventies and put tremendous effort to alleviate tensions between the two global powers even became known as the pioneer of what is nowadays referred to as people-to-people (or track-2) diplomacy. As a significant element within contemporary conflict management, people-to-people diplomacy starts from the presumption that in times of crisis and failure of traditional diplomacy, the interaction between ordinary citizens is able to pave the way toward political alleviation. Often recurring in areas such as sports, culture and higher education, people-to-people diplomacy is foremost a process of exchange between people and ideas.

Amidst rising political tensions, people-to-people relations are still a unique area of mutual understanding in the current relations between the West and Russia. Besides the many opportunities (and challenges) digital media and communication offer in this respect, the world has recently witnessed how cultural or sports events such as the World Cup are able to bring (at least briefly) some détente in their relationship. Also, in other areas and in many different forms, people-to-people relations between Russia and the West seem to thrive. These relations include academic conferences and research projects, joint-think-tanks, and citizen platforms, to so-called “travelling art” and international sport competitions. Therefore, it is unsurprising that both Western and Russian governments have taken an increasing interest in the dynamics of people-to-people relations. This is expressed in governments’ efforts to trigger cultural relations by, for instance, the promotion of exchange between higher education systems, the facilitation of scholarly exchanges, and the organization and promotion of sports and cultural events, a good example is the UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature in 2016.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that the widening political gap in relations between Russia and the West could be closed by ordinary citizens. However, history has proven that the importance of grass-roots events and cultural ties should not be underestimated as a potential means of preventing further deterioration and eventually even conflict resolution. Above all, and alongside the various global shifts and the rise of non-state actors in contemporary political processes, the emergence of strong people-to-people relations points to the increasing importance of cultural relations in uncertain times; a tendency which, given the rapid rise of global inter-connectivity, will likely only gain in importance in the near future.