Russian officials sometimes refer to their country’s neighbors as the “Near Abroad,” a term that falsely implies a closer, more paternal relationship with Moscow than is actually the case with fully sovereign states. Misguided as this concept may be, the Kremlin has used it as a pretext to claim responsibility for protecting the rights of ethnic Russian minorities outside the borders of the Russian Federation—despite little evidence that their rights are being systematically violated.
Instead of actually protecting ethnic Russians, Moscow pursues a “compatriots” policy aimed at manipulating ethnic Russian populations elsewhere as a way to project its influence. It has promoted ethnic segregation, undermined social cohesion and exploited imaginary problems. In most cases these policies have had limited effect, especially where ethnic Russians enjoy higher living standards than inside Russia itself. But in Ukraine, the Kremlin has used the alleged violation of ethnic Russians to justify military intervention, with tragic consequences.
Russia uses several approaches
to implement its compatriots policy. First, it funds associations and individuals who push narratives about human rights violations that justify Moscow’s claims. For example, in 2012 it founded a Fund for the Legal Protection and Support of Russian Federation Compatriots Living Abroad to support such legal “protectors.”
Second, the Kremlin finances human rights reviews of the status of ethnic Russians by nonprofit associations that spread Russia’s messages. Russia then presents the results of these biased “reviews” in the media and at public events as part of influence operations.
Third, the compatriots policy fosters corruption. In principle, the Kremlin uses a competitive funding process to finance NGO projects designed to call attention to alleged abuses of ethnic Russians’ rights. In practice, more experienced project writers take advantage of weak Kremlin follow-up—pocketing much of the money and dividing it with Russian officials. These projects then present self-created or exaggerated “evidence” supporting Moscow’s line to secure continued funding.
As this week’s Lithuania brief shows, however, the Kremlin also uses popular culture to advance its compatriot policy. Pop singer Oleg Gozmanov is one several stars the Russian government sponsors in an effort to strengthen cultural ties with Russia and nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Although Gozmanov’s individual ability to travel is relatively inconsequential, the decision by Lithuanian and Latvian officials to refuse him entry to those countries hands Moscow a pretext to accuse Baltic leaders of denying free speech. It also gives the Kremlin an opportunity to “protect” Gozmanov through spurious legal action. Russia’s goal is not to win the case; the Kremlin certainly cares little for Gozmanov’s rights or those of other entertainers. Its goal is to undermine Western leaders by making them look like hypocrites.