Interview
Russian education as a tool of "soft power"
Conversation with Andrey Baykov
Andrey Baykov
Vice-Rector of Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO), editor-in-chief of International Trends magazine, Director of the Academic Forum on International Relations.
PICREADI asks Andrey Baykov, Vice-Rector of Moscow State University of International Relations, about Russian educational institutions and their role in developing "soft power"


Publication date: 08.05.2018
PICREADI: How big of a role do Russian educational institutions play in developing Russian soft power? Is there anything being done to increase it?
Andrey Baykov: There are several projects now under implementation, initiated first of all, by the Ministry of Education. They are directed at three main areas. Number one is to generally improve the image and reputation of Russian universities as a symbol, in a way, of Russia's power, of its soft power in particular. This is the famous 5 in the top 100 project, inaugurated under Mr Livanov, the predecessor of the current Ministry of education. It was based on the decrees by the president with the goal being to get at least five Russian universities in the top 100 in the world rankings by 2020. This is a huge project involving now some two dozen universities. Mostly, classical comprehensive universities and engineering universities. This is a project, which has been funded very well, but it's difficult to say at this stage whether it will be eventually successful. Yet, for sure much has been done to improve the standing of those universities. They are much more recognizable now in the domain of international education and science and they are attracting more international students. They have the means to employ well-established academics from all over the world and thus they increase their visibility in this area. So, more or less it has been a successful project, even though we don't know the end result or whether these five universities will make it into the top-100.

The second one is the relatively recent initiative of the export of Russian educational services. It involves now about forty universities who pledge to increase the number of international students in their student body by the factor three, so that the overall number of international students in Russia is 710 thousand students a year. This would make Russia number three or number four worldwide, in terms of the total of international students studying in Russian universities.

The third sphere is the one, which has been around for quite some time. It's the program of sending Russian students and Russian faculty to study abroad as part of joint degree programs or dual degree programs. This is meant to increase the awareness about the Russian education globally because all joint programs are intended to mutually familiarize the parties of one another's potential agenda and in this sense, the university is used as a channel and as an actor in advancing Russian soft power.
To learn more about the role of educational institutions in Public Diplomacy of Russia, please, read the Report, published by PICREADI in February 2018.
PICREADI: How are Russian universities viewed abroad?
Andrey Baykov: It really depends on what country we talk about and what university we talk about because some universities have been in partnership with Russian universities for a long time and this partnership can go back decades. Like Moscow Physical Technical University for instance, which is the leader in physical technical sciences or Moscow State University, which has always been a brand. I don't think that the general image is overly good and that is because if we take western countries for instance they only started sending their students to Russia in the 90's.

The group of universities where westerners study is very small because the Soviet system was targeting primarily the students of third world developing countries. They don't really add much to the image of education because what matters most are scientific achievements that you can demonstrate. So, we really need to talk about the group of elite universities and they know very little about Russian universities. They only now are starting to discover what universities are worth talking to. How many of those exactly is difficult to say, but I will say that the five in one hundred project members are those that have the potential.

Within this project, there is also a hierarchy of universities. Maybe eight or seven are well known, and the rest are pretty much unknown to the world. If you take France for instance, they know Russian universities pretty well. Whereas, if you take Great Britain or the United States they know very little about Russian universities, except for the group of the most elite universities like Saint Petersburg State University or Moscow State University. Even what they know does not really apply to the quality of education or research; they know about these universities for other reasons.
PICREADI: In recent years, how have Russian academic institutions been trying to increase the amount of exchange programs?
Andrey Baykov: Like anywhere else, Russian academic institutions just look for partners, sign agreements, and exchange students. Normally this exchange takes place on a reciprocal basis. That means that they mutually wave tuition fees for those students as long as there is parity observed in the exchange, regarding the number of students. If we take MGIMO university, we don't have any lack of interest in exchange with us from our partners. Quite a few universities want to partner with us due to a variety of reasons associated with our status or with our alumni.

So, it is a constant search for partners, but I cannot say that we are more active or proactive in this process than our international partners. Very often, they approach us and ask us for the possibility of exchanges. I cannot say the same about other universities though. But, Moscow universities are in any case more privileged in this regard because Moscow, I would say, is more suited for the semester long experience of studying abroad for westerners.

Even though, I know that some elite western universities and British universities prefer regional universities to Moscow or Saint Petersburg Universities. Especially for linguistic purposes, because here you can spend a semester without having to know any Russian since everyone will talk to you in English. Whereas, if you go to Voronezh or Nizhny Novgorod, you may really improve your language skills there because campuses there are much less international. This is the main channel that is used bilaterally.

There are also a few network university initiatives, like the Shanghai Organization of cooperation network university, CIS network university, BRICS network university. These are multilateral arrangements within which students can move, not between just the two universities, but they can choose and spend some time during their period of studies at several universities. We have actually a network of this kind in management in which students first spend one semester in France, the second semester in Italy and then they can choose to go to five more universities and they end up having three degrees as a result.
PICREADI: As the amount of exchange programs and academic cooperation that Russia has with other countries increases is it possible gauge the effect that this has on Russian soft power?
Andrey Baykov: I don't really believe in soft power to begin with. I think that for soft power to matter other conditions should also be at play in any specific dyad of countries. Just having alumni present in a certain country does not warrant a loyal foreign policy from that country. It is very difficult to understand in what way soft power can work. I think soft power can only work if there is a strong dependence or interdependence between countries and when there is a lot of trust between them. One other factor is when there haven't been major incidents of war in recent history, as armed conflicts get deeply entrenched in the collective memory of a nation. In all other cases, it is really difficult to use soft power.

Also, soft power is practically useless if your vital interests are affected. It is very difficult to respond nicely if you're asked to commit suicide or compromise on your principle material interests. The Soviet Union was educating thousands of students from all over the world, including Eastern European countries, Asia, and Africa. There's practically no conversion into soft power, which Russia can claim for itself now from those programs. So I don't think there is any direct link or indirect link, it's immeasurable in principle. I think it can increase cultural awareness, but other than that, it is very difficult to convert it into power terms.

Furthermore, I would argue that the more culturally aware you are of other of other countries, the more nationalistic you are about yourself. So, as a general rule an increase in cultural awareness leads to more conflict. It's a paradox, but it's true. All the current problems of the European Union are in large part linked to an increase in cultural awareness.
PICREADI: Is soft power and public diplomacy becoming a more popular field of research in Russia?
Andrey Baykov: Yes, many people are very interested in public diplomacy and soft power. I don't think public diplomacy and soft power are the same things though. Public diplomacy is a way of putting influence and pressure on government through non-state actors in the public sector. You cannot resolve any real political or diplomatic issues through public diplomacy; but you can contribute to the positive outcome. So, you create this background against which the actual negotiations are taking place. But again, the public doesn't know much about what is going on behind closed doors. What is taken into account during negotiations is the actual correlation of interests and forces. Public diplomacy has very little to do with this.

You can use public diplomacy to propagate and implement decisions that have already been made, to explain why being colonized is good for you, or being occupied is good for you. Yet, this is not actual diplomacy; it is beyond actual decision-making. You either prepare and improve your position pending negotiations, or you help implement the decisions already taken by alleviating resistance.
PICREADI: Does MGIMO have any projects that aim to promote public diplomacy or soft power?
Andrey Baykov: MGIMO is deeply committed to public diplomacy. We are in fact used by the government as a tool of public diplomacy. I can speak of three distinct mechanisms that are clearly related to the field of public diplomacy where MGIMO is actively involved. One is now an accomplished mission, of settling issues of historical memory and difficult issues of history between Russia and Poland, of which MGIMO's rector was a co-chairman. It was a long and meticulous task undertaken by a group of distinguished historians from both sides, working together and finding common ground through interpreting difficult issues in Russian-Polish and Soviet-Polish history. The same mechanism modeled on the Russian-Polish group on difficult issues was set up in regard to Japan for Russian-Japanese relations. Now there is the Trianon dialogue that was established as an initiative between president Macron and Putin. This is seen as a civic forum between Russian and French societies. In all those three mechanisms our rector was the co-chairman appointed by the president.

Also, we are involved in 1.5 and second track diplomacy through constant expert meetings and conferences with the United States on nonproliferation. Due to the fact that an important share of our faculty are politicians, high-ranking diplomats, due to the unique position that our rector enjoys in this country, we have a lot to contribute to public diplomacy. But again, the decisions and perceptions are all made at the level beyond that of universities.
PICREADI: Are there any noticeable aspects in which the Russian education system changes the way students think about international relations in comparison to western education systems?
Andrey Baykov: Your question basically refers to what world view we as an institution subscribe to and pass on to our students. This is mostly a realist worldview, which asserts that unless we have a world state we are stuck in a world of anarchy in which states try to maximize their power and therefore are constantly involved in an intense security competition. National interests will always come to the front. So, we should pay attention to interests and benefits for this or that situation because there is no global identity and people still claim loyalty to their national communities over any other form of self-identification. Also, there will be no transcending nationalism in the coming decades and until it happens we should be realistic about the terms of settlement between great powers. Great powers continue to remain the major players in the international system. There is a nuclear factor as well; we should all remember that we are sitting on huge arsenals with overkill potential, capable of killing each other several times over. So, we have to be respectful of each other and try to negotiate rather than to impose views.

Conducted by Alexandro Granata, PICREADI intern

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