Reconsidering Culture in Times of Trouble: A Call for Re-conceptualization of Russian-EU Cultural Relations

Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian Crisis, Russian-EU military, strategic and diplomatic relations have been deteriorating over, recently reaching an unseen low point. Besides the well-known political and economic consequences, this has implications on a cultural level. Although officially assigned a secondary role in EU-Russian relations, culture plays a vital and often pernicious role in both actors’ foreign policy. Under the umbrella of cultural diplomacy, one-way transfer of “cultural values” is prioritised over genuine cultural dialogue, leaving open enormous potential for growth and intercultural collaboration. Yet, the current crisis offers opportunities. By reconsidering the role of culture in the unique relationship in EU-Russian relations, and by critically examining both actors’ current cultural strategies, alternative cultural paths are explored. A revalorisation of the concept of cultural relations appears to be a viable means to revitalise and sustain Russian-EU relations.

Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian Crisis, Russian-EU relations have been deteriorating, mainly due to diverse military and diplomatic developments. This has led to an unseen low point in their young, but tumultuous relationship. Besides the well-known diplomatic and economic implications, the tensions also influence Russian-EU cultural collaboration and dialogue. Contrary to the popular understanding that “culture brings together”, it in fact plays an ambiguous role, even becoming a sore point in relations, reflecting a range of broader difficulties. Although, the vast Russian territory and many European countries largely share the same values, culture and history, a sustainable and successful cultural strategy has never been established, with a few successful attempts being overshadowed by each actor’s own peculiar cultural strategy, aimed at furthering political goals, rather than improving cultural collaboration or fostering intercultural dialogue. Therefore, we can say that culture plays a partially destabilising role in relations. With the rise of the EU and post-Soviet Russia as fairly new players in the changing world order, a reactivation of cultural dialogue is vital to sustain relations, and offers a possibility to revitalise ties in times of trouble. By deploying a constructivist approach to culture, rather than the popular liberal soft-power approach, this paper seeks to examine the ambiguous role of culture in Russia-EU relations, while highlighting a reconsidered concept of cultural relations and introducing an upcoming project.

II. Culture and International Relations

“Culture … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”.[1]

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)

Since the 19thcentury, cultural strategy has played an important role in big nation’s foreign policies, and has since been developed as a favoured instrument within many countries’ so-called soft power strategies. In this context, the notion of cultural diplomacy, here understood as the deployment of a state’s culture in support of its foreign policy goals or diplomacy[2]comes to mind.

The importance of culture in international relations was echoed by former German statesman Willy Brandt (1913-1992) who famously stated in 1969 that, “cultural policy is the third pillar of foreign policy”. Research has pointed to the benefits culture canoffer in interstate relations: for example, it can minimise (historic) political tensions or represent the means through which messages of tolerance are transmitted and promoted. In reality, however, culture tends to play a completely different role and should be understood within nations’ larger endeavours to gain support for political and economic goals by transferring one’s culture to another actor[3], in other words culture functions merely as a means to further a political agenda.

Echoing Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power, cultural diplomacy, anno 2017, refers to the process wherein foreign publics are exposed to certain of their cultural products, ranging from art, literature, music to film and museum exhibitions. Regardless of the successes of such policies in the past, the very concept of cultural diplomacy raises multiple questions such as, how can its effectiveness be measured, and how do audiences negotiate the meaning of cultural products? Research shows that policy makers have little control over the effects of their policy and has even pinpointed the destabilising effects of cultural diplomacy in inter-state relations.[4]In addition, where does this leave the community of cultural practitioners, when cultural diplomacy strategy only seems to aim at furthering political agendas?

III. Culture and EU-Russia Relations

Although, citizens of the Russian Federation and the European Union share largely the same history, values and culture, this has unfortunately never been reflected in an effective common cultural strategy. Generally treated as a secondary matter in their relations, following diplomacy and economy, the potential benefits of strong cultural collaboration have not yet been explored to their full extent, leaving specialists disillusioned as they regard cultural cooperation as the most promising area of Russian-European strategic partnership.[5]

This, of course, doesn’t mean that there have not been any attempts to work out some kind of cultural cooperation. Within the context of the St. Petersburg Summit in May 2003, four key-areas of common space of cooperation were created. The common space for Research and Education was concerned with the cultural aspects of their relationship. In 2005, a further step was taken with the creation of so-called “road maps”, a tool to implement the cooperation, particularly focussing on the development of a common education space. Although this resulted in the organisation of so-called “cross cultural years”, seminars, festivals and meetings such as the first Russia-EU permanent partnership council on culture in Lisbon (2007) and the international seminar “Russia-EU signs on a road map of cultural cooperation” in Moscow (2009), cultural cooperation soon became a mere reflection of their broader relations characterised by conflict, not cooperation, and overshadowed by scepticism.

Depending on the political will of cultural policy makers, no coherent cultural strategy was developed, nor was a genuine cultural dialogue between cultural communities in EU and Russia established. With the outbreak of the Ukrainian Crisis, Russian-EU relations deteriorated quickly, reaching a historic low point. The last strategic partnership of 2011 was not continued as it was blocked by the European Parliament, as a measure against what they considered to be Russia’s interference during the bloodshed in Ukraine. This meant the end of cultural cooperation. However, while cultural dialogue ultimately failed with the EU, it seemed to flourish with individual member states in the form of bilateral contacts.

As a reflection of the tumultuous nature of Russian-EU relations, this lack of cultural dialogue and cooperation has deteriorated further, following the intention, from both sides, to develop their own cultural projects expressing opposing world views. According to H. Haukkala, these world views are irreconcilable and constructed in a path-dependent and deterministic manner, undermining possibilities for cooperation in the short term.[6]This is echoed by A. Loginov who stated that Russian-EU dialogue encounters cultural and civilisational difficulties in both the EU and Russia.[7] Serving as an extension of their respective world views, cultural policy is now more than ever characterised by emphasising each other’s uniqueness and difference, rather than the obvious shared elements in their unique relation.

IV. Instead of a Conclusion: Redefining Cultural Relations

The failure to establish a coherent Russian-EU strategy for cultural relations, and the ignorance of the advantages of cultural dialogue, highlight that the origins of the current low point in Russian-EU relations can be traced back to the period preceding the Ukrainian Crisis. Moreover, it serves as a reflection of the ambiguous role traditional cultural diplomacy plays in international relations, in which culture has become a powerful political tool.

This problematic, spurs the author to reconsider the role of culture in Russian-EU relations. Following K. Bound, et al., culture can be considered as a medium between people on a mass scale, with profound effects laterally and upwardly on interstate relations.[8]Therefore, we have opted to seek alternatives to a traditional policy of cultural diplomacy. One possibility would be to take a constructivist approach to cultural relations, which could enable the strengthening of cultural ties through an emphasis on the creation of a shared identity in the process of cultural transmission and dialogue.

In this context, the author suggests a reconsideration of the concept of cultural relations, defined in co-authorship with Stuart MacDonald as, “reciprocal, non-coercive transnational interactions between two or more cultures, encompassing a range of activities that are conducted both by state and non-state actors within the space of cultural and civil society”.[9]The overall outcomes of cultural relations are greater connectivity, better mutual understanding, more and deeper relationships, mutually beneficial transactions and enhanced sustainable dialogue between states, peoples, non-state actors and culture.

Going beyond traditional methods of foreign cultural diplomacy, our definition of cultural relations is characterised by an increased focus on cultural communities and initiatives coming from within civic society, rather than from governmental circles. Only in close interactions between both civic societies can genuine cultural exchange can take place, as this enables all actors to avoid the well-known obstacles, and to lay the foundation for interstate cultural cooperation characterised by mutual understanding and dialogue, rather than by repulsion. The author is starting a project which aims to explore potential pathways through which a Russian-European cultural dialogue can be revitalised by bringing Russian and European actors from cultural and educational circles together under a common cultural flag. By the same token, we will explore other projects which have proven to be successful in the past and consider them within the scope of Russian-EU cultural relations.

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Mark, S.L. (2010) “Rethinking Cultural Diplomacy: The Cultural Diplomacy of New Zealand, the Canadian Federation and Quebec”, in Political Science, 62 (1), 62-83.

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[1]E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture(London: John Murray, 1871), first paragraph.

[2]Mark, 2010: 43.

[3]Maack, 2001: 59.

[4]Lebedeva, 2012.

[5]Busygina, 2013: 50-51.

[6]Haukkala, 2010.

[7]Loginov, 2008:274-275.

[8]Bound, et al, 2007: 16-17.

[9]The authors have created the wikipedia entry for cultural relations on the subject.

EssayErik Vlaeminck