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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Commerce, Culture Conflict

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 6 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Expanded international trade brings many benefits to everyone involved, but its impact on their national cultures is more complicated, benefiting some and undermining others.

Trade can benefit national cultures in three ways. It can give a country the resources necessary to defend its own cultural traditions. It can extend the cultural influence of the exporting country across the world. And it can open the culture of the importer to new possibilities.

But trade can also threaten national cultures as well. It can promote an international culture that may overwhelm particular national ones. It can undermine efforts by national elites to promote national loyalty. And it can exacerbate tensions in culturally divided countries.

Not surprisingly, those who feel their cultures threatened often look for ways to limit the impact of international trade on their traditions, while those who benefit from such commerce tend to view any discussion of culture as an unwarranted effort to limit free trade.

The debate broke out again last week at a meeting of 19 countries in the Canadian capital of Ottawa. There cultural officials from the Americas and Europe explored ways to limit the cultural impact of trade on their societies.

They suggested that countries must have some ability to limit trade in those areas such as film and television that directly threaten their national cultures by holding up powerful alternative models from abroad.

Not invited to the meeting was a representative from the United States. The Canadian organizers said they had not done so because the US does not have a cultural minister; but they later backed down and allowed the American embassy in Canada to send observers.

But the real reason for the initial decision, one that not all participants supported, appears to be longstanding Canadian concern that American culture is overwhelming Canadian culture as a result of television broadcasts, book publishing, and Canadian imports of many American products.

In the past, Canadians have adopted measures to increase Canadian content in the media and thus to restrict American content, moves that the U.S. has denounced as a violation of international agreements on free trade.

Most of the coverage of the Ottawa meeting implied that this dispute between Canada and the United States was somehow unique. And it suggested that Canada was engaging in a somewhat silly and ultimately hopeless defense against the inevitable.

But in fact, the Ottawa meeting -- and it is scheduled to be followed by sessions in Mexico City and Athens -- calls attention to a much more widespread problem, one familiar to many smaller countries living next to a larger one.

One region where this problem threatens to break out in an even more dramatic fashion is in the countries of the former Soviet space, between the Russian Federation and its much smaller neighbors.

And because of three specific features of this region, the conflict there could be even more intense than the one highlighted at the Ottawa meeting.

First, by virtue of its size and economic possibilities, the Russian Federation is likely to loom even larger in the lives of the peoples of the former Soviet republics than does the United States in the lives of Canadians.

Second, because of their past experience with Moscow's rule and because of their desire to strengthen their own national identities, the non-Russians are likely to be even more sensitive to the impact of Russian culture on their own national cultures.

And third, because of the unique pattern of language knowledge in the non-Russian countries, they are likely to see the impact of trade on culture as particularly threatening.

Many observers describe the non-Russian countries as bilingual, but that is simply not true, at least as it is usually meant. In most of them, the non-Russians speak their own language as well as Russian, while most of the ethnic Russians there speak only Russian.

As a result, expanded trade with its attendant cultural influence may tend to solidify the cultural and political divisions in these societies rather than help overcome them. And that in turn is likely to have a profound impact on the policies of the non-Russian governments.

To the extent that they seek to restrict the cultural impact of trade with Russia, they may have to give up some economic advantages and some political support from other large countries that are suspicious of any cultural arguments.

But to the extent that they do not seek to take such measures, they may find themselves in a position like the Canadians and others where their national cultures will be transformed beyond recognition and beyond their control.

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