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In The Heart Of New York, Russia's 'Soft Power' Arm Gaining Momentum

Andranik Migranyan, head of the New York office of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation
Andranik Migranyan, head of the New York office of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation
NEW YORK -- Tucked into a piece of prime real estate in midtown Manhattan, the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation currently boasts just four employees -- two Russian analysts, a secretary, and Andranik Migranyan, the Armenian-born political scientist who serves as director of the institute's New York branch.

It appears to be a bare-bones operation. Much of the furniture and office equipment are secondhand, left behind by the previous tenants. Migranyan, who occupies a sleek corner office with a sweeping view of the city, is dressed casually in a brown leather jacket and sweater. During the course of a two-hour interview, the premises remain preternaturally silent, with no evident signs of activity or bustle.

But Migranyan, a former adviser to Boris Yeltsin, is thinking bigger. The office, which includes a 30-seat conference room, has already hosted two seminars on U.S.-Russian relations.

From his vantage point on the 20th floor of a corporate skyscraper just minutes away from such New York landmarks as the Chrysler building, the United Nations, and Grand Central station, the institute has already scored a certain achievement in landing right in the heart of the United States' biggest and most international city.

It is an ideal location for one of the institute's chosen areas of interest -- immigration. Migranyan, who slips easily between English and Russian, says it's a topic that is critical for the United States and Russia alike:

"Immigration is an important issue for both Russia and the U.S. The United States has significant experience in the absorption of immigrants, their adaptation and integration," Migranyan says.

"Russia today is also becoming a country of immigrants. The demographic situation is complex. The population’s increase is generated mostly by newcomers. Many of those are from the former Soviet Union, but there are also those from far away -- Vietnamese, Chinese, Afghans, and many others."

Such opportunities for comparative research are part of the reason the institute set up shop abroad. The think tank, founded in Moscow by lawyer and Public Chamber member Anatoly Kucherena, says it "strives to improve relations" between the Russian Federation and the United States. (A second overseas branch has been established in Paris under the direction of former diplomat and State Duma Deputy Natalia Narochnitskaya.) The project is evidence of the Kremlin's growing interest in "soft power" -- using Western media, PR, and think-tank models to advance its own interests in abroad.

Turning The Tables

U.S.-Russian relations hit new post-Cold War lows during the eight-year administration of George W. Bush, when Washington's unilateralist stance came across as arrogant and dismissive in an increasingly wealthy and powerful Russia.

The Kremlin, chafing under Western admonitions to improve its record on democracy and human rights, decided to turn the tables, investing heavily in policy forums, media projects, and PR events designed to acquaint the West with Russia on its own terms.

Such projects include a monthly supplement, "Russia Beyond the Headlines," enclosed in the U.S. "Washington Post" daily. There is also Russia Today, the 24-hour English-language news channel with a pronounced pro-Kremlin slant, and the Valdai discussion group, which invites prominent Western journalists to participate in an intimate forum with top Russian officials.

The Kremlin hired the U.S.-based PR firm Ketchum to orchestrate its media relations when it hosted the Group of Eight in 2006, and has since sunk millions into Western publicity firms in an attempt to burnish its image as a sophisticated, but uncompromising, international partner.

Migranyan says the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation is not financed with Kremlin money, and that Kucherena depends on support from private sponsors. Nevertheless, the institute's views rarely diverge from that of the Kremlin's. Neither does one of its key stated goals -- studying Western democracy and "offering recommendations for its improvement." Founder Kucherena has argued that no country can monopolize the definition of democracy and human rights.

Migranyan, whose name has become a more frequent sight in American publications like "The New York Times" and "The National Interest," has staunchly defended Russia's position on issues like the August war with Georgia and the recent decision by Kyrgyzstan to close the Manas U.S. air base.

But he says that under the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, there are fresh opportunities for U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of issues.

Migranyan says Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's recent proposal for a new Euro-Atlantic security pace provides an ideal template for a new stage in relations.

"If there will be progress in that direction, then it will remove a host of problems creating tension in our relations," Migranyan says, citing U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in Europe and NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine. "There's a belief in Moscow that President Obama is capable of implementing significant changes in Moscow-Washington relations. That will be the final conclusion of the Cold War."

Dispelling Myths

The Institute for Democracy and Cooperation does not appear to be in direct competition with more venerable think tanks like the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations or global democracy watchdogs Freedom House and Human Rights Watch.

But Migranyan says he is bringing in American political analysts to bolster his group on a part-time basis. The institute this week hosts a seminar on challenges to democracy, with a mix of U.S. and Russian experts on the roster. Upcoming, he says, is a panel devoted to the issues of local governance, cosponsored by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Other projects include a study of American media and a U.S.-Russian symposium on legal reform in Russia. Migranyan says he has invited Leonid Nikitinsky and Genri Reznik, both prominent advocates for Russian justice-sector reform, to participate.

Perhaps with the mention of Nikitinsky and Reznik, both frequent Kremlin critics, Migranyan is hoping to demonstrate that Moscow is ready to make a more nuanced view of policy. The director says one of the aims of his institute is to dispel the myth of Russia as and "evil empire" to be excluded from global institutions.

On the thorny issue of Georgia-Russia relations, and Moscow's recognition of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the wake of last summer's war, Migranyan says the outcome was not inevitable. Russia, he says, was pushed to act by what he characterizes as the extreme behavior of Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili and Washington's support for independence in the breakaway region of Kosovo.

"If there hadn't been such anti-Russia hysteria in Georgia, and if Saakashvili hadn't had such a maniacal obsession with NATO membership and bringing Russia into a head-to-head confrontation with Brussels and Washington, then of course Russia would have been much more restrained with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia hasn't recognized either Transdniester or Nagorno-Karabakh, correct?" Migranyan says. "That means that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were not decisions based on principle, but decisions born out of a coincidence of factors in this particular situation."

Getting the United States and Russia to see eye-to-eye on issues like Georgia and NATO expansion could take years, if not decades. Will the looming economic crisis put a dent in Migranyan's plans to change America from within? The director smiles, but refuses to discuss how plummeting oil prices or the devalued ruble may affect his institute's lifespan. Plans are moving ahead. The work is going well.

Down the hall, his secretary, a Kazakh woman with flawless English, can be heard on the phone, discussing dinner arrangements for this week's seminar. Can the restaurant give a discount on the customary 20 percent gratuity tax? She's confident she can negotiate it down to 15.

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