Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Russia's Image and Soft Power Resources in Southeast Asia: Perceptions among Young Elites in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Russia's Image and Soft Power Resources in Southeast Asia: Perceptions among Young Elites in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam

Article excerpt

The main purpose of this study is to analyze Russia's soft power resources in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. To achieve this goal, it draws on the results of a survey on perceptions of Russia conducted by the author in 2012-13 among students enrolled at the National University of Laos, Vientiane, Thammasat University in Bangkok and the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Hanoi.

As Anton Tsvetov has argued, Southeast Asia today plays a secondary role in Russia's foreign policy. (2) Nevertheless, for a number of reasons it is important to understand the ways Russia is perceived in the region. From a purely academic perspective, the extant academic literature that deals with perceptions of Russia, its soft power and related topics is scarce and focuses almost exclusively on the former Soviet republics and Western countries. (3) Thus, a study of other countries and regions with different political structures and histories of relations with Russia such as Southeast Asia is needed to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the ways Russia is perceived in the world today.

A better understanding of perceptions of Russia in Southeast Asia is also important from a policy perspective. Russia's involvement in the conflict in Syria, and the strengthening of Sino-Russia relations, suggest that Russian policymakers are continuously seeking new arenas for its foreign policy aimed at re-establishing Russia's position as a truly global player in international relations. Importantly, Russia's strong support for the establishment of the New Development (BRICS) Bank, peace treaty negotiations with Japan, mediation in peace talks for Syria and recently voiced desire to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, show that the tools deployed by Russia are not limited to the use of force but include "soft" measures as well. To a certain extent these transformations in Russia's foreign policy can be attributed to the recent crisis in Moscow's relations with the West brought about by the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its ongoing involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Arguably, however, the worsening of Russia's relations with the West served more as a catalyst in the process of re-establishing Russia's position as a Great Power rather than its cause. One needs only to recall President Boris Yeltsin's fierce reaction to the bombings conducted by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) warplanes in Kosovo in 1998, and the subsequent dispatch of Russian troops to Pristina airport, or President Vladimir Putin's unexpected meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong II before the July 2000 G8 Summit during which he secured a moratorium on test-firing of long range missiles, to understand that Russia's self-perception as a global player and attempts to act as such are not a new phenomenon.

Overall, "soft" attempts to reshape international public opinion and improve Russia's image became an integral part of its attempts to re-establish itself as a global power in the early 2000s. It was at this time that Russian official policy documents started to refer to the "soft" tools of foreign policy, such as the promotion of Russia's language, culture and history, as well as its stance on international issues. (4) In 2005, Russia Today (later known simply as RT), a government funded English language news channel aimed at improving Russia's image abroad, was launched. Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation, whose purpose is to promote Russian language and culture in other countries, was established by a Presidential decree in 2007. In 2008, Soyuz Sovetskih Obshestv Drujby (Union of Soviet Friendship Societies), the main organ of Soviet public diplomacy that was closed down in 1994, was resurrected as Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation).

So far, most of these and other efforts to enhance Russia's influence have been directed mainly at Western countries and the former Soviet republics, often referred to as Russia's "near abroad". …

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