Igor Yurgens (left), chairman of the Institute for Contemporary Development, discusses Russian politics with the Lowy Institute in Canberra, Australia. Photo by: Lisa Cornish / Devex

CANBERRA — As tension between Russia and the West continues to mount, the Lowy Institute last week turned the focus of its Australian lecture series to Russian politics. Igor Yurgens, chairman of Russian think tank Institute for Contemporary Development describes himself as a “moderate” in his commentary on Russian politics. On April 11, he spoke in Canberra, presenting insight into the internal thinking and foreign policy decision-making taking place in his increasingly anti-West nation.

Caught in the middle are NGOs, which Yurgens told Devex remain in an “unfavorable” position in the current climate.

The path to an anti-West Russia

Yurgens describes Russian President Vladimir Putin as a concentrated and diligent learner who “knows his files.” But he also paints a picture of a man who has been beaten down by Western countries — especially the United States — since his first term as president began in 2000.

“He was Western oriented when he came to power,” Yurgens explained, saying Putin was looking into joining the European Union and being part of a NATO political structure.

Putin, Yurgens said, believes he deserved more credit for his early attempts to work with and support the West — and was frustrated by continued criticism and suspicion. He worked in solidarity with the West following the 9/11 attacks and complied with requests to close Russian bases in Vietnam and Cuba. But frustrations with NATO activities in countries bordering Russia led to his 2007 Cold War speech in Munich where he warned of continuing this line of action.

By 2011, his belief that Russia was not being taken seriously, was being treated like “the black sheep,” and that international bodies were rigged to be strictly against Russia, led him to a be an opponent of all things “West.”

A year later, the foreign agents law was introduced, impacting NGOs engaging in “political” activity from receiving any foreign funding — with the aim of eliminating Western ideals in domestic politics.

And the country’s domestic and foreign politics have continued to be in conflict with the West ever since.

Russian perspectives on Syria — and the impact of war with the West

Following the most recent chemical attack on civilians in Syria, accusations of Russian support and retaliatory action from the United States, United Kingdom, and France, there is concern that the humanitarian crisis in Syria will worsen and that it will lead to an all-out war between East and West.

“It’s dangerous,” Yurgens said. “It looks like the Cuban crisis to me.”

Yurgens warned that the Russian state media appeared to be preparing the population at home for a “very serious conflict with the West.”

“It is getting worrisome,” he said. “People are definitely preparing themselves for something and they are working themselves into a state.”

Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict in 2014, Yurgens believes, was a “maneuver” to get back to good relations with foreign governments in the West. But oil and gas and other economic and geopolitical interest have kept Russia involved in the conflict.

Speaking before the U.S.-led airstrikes of April 14, Yurgens predicted the fallout from the chemical attack could result in three methods of response from the U.S. — strikes on Syrian bases, arming U.S. allies in the region, or boots on the ground. The strikes have already taken place, but more is possible.

“Confrontation with the United States is very risky business,” he said. “I don’t think that we will be using nuclear arms, but who knows? Who knows what kind of mistakes on both sides of the military [will be made].”

An international crisis, Yurgens believes, will impact internal Russian politics. With gross domestic product growth low, both liberal and conservative sides of Russian politics have been preparing and pitching their ideas for economic development. The liberals are looking toward technology revolutions and the West for economic development while conservatives are looking at military and industrial options — with an inward focused economic agenda.

Any liberalization of Russia would be off the table during an international dispute.

Russia’s relationship with China

Questions of Russia’s relationship with China — including its role in the One Belt, One Road initiative — brought Yurgens to discuss how the two are working together on issues of foreign policy.

According to Yurgens, it is not as rosy a relationship as it appears on the outside.

“On the surface, our relationship [between Russia and China] is at an all-time high and the best we ever had,” Yurgens said, explaining that there has been a history of distrust between the two nations.

Cooperation, agreements, and ongoing dialogue between the two countries suggest a productive working and political relationship. But it is an up and down relationship, according to Yurgens. They collaborate and work together on supporting or rejecting declarations put forward by the United Nations Security Council. But not sanctions.

“But from my personal point of view, when it comes to real business the Chinese side can be more strict than our Western partners — in all things,” he said. “I think that China minds her own business and thinks of Russia — at best — as a junior partner, which Russia won’t accept.”

Overall, Yurgens considers the relationship between the two countries as one “without substance.”

The situation for NGOs

Preparing the country for a major war with the West has placed NGOs operating within Russia under even more pressure.

The foreign agents law of 2012 requires NGOs who engage in “political activity” and receive foreign funding to support their work to register as foreign agents. NGOs listed as foreign agents are not only required to adhere to a range of legislative obligation and lose tax concessions, they are ostracized from engagement with government as well as other areas of Russian society.

Many NGOs operating within Russia have had to refuse foreign donations, relying solely on domestic sources of funding for their work.

Yurgens explained to Devex that the legislation initially drew uproar from the liberals of Russian politics and continues to be a point of contention among members of the government that are considered humanitarian orientated.

“Regularly, they prepare the dossier file on how wrong it is to qualify some of them [NGOs] as foreign agents,” Yurgens said. “I know a few of them do register as foreign, they do receive foreign aid and they are under a lot of pressure. Among those is Memorial which is the oldest human rights watch [organization] in Moscow. They are under a lot of pressure.”

Protests and legal action have challenged the law and its impact on human rights, and Yurgens believes there are hints that there may be an easing of the legislation.

“The way it is now, anyone who received foreign money can’t deal with politics in the very broad sense,” Yurgens said. “And that qualification, Putin agrees, is too broad.”

A clear indication of what is considered “political activity” may be defined, enabling some NGOs to receive foreign funding without being ostracized. But a growing anti-West campaign and a nation preparing for war may mean that is some time off yet.

“The present climate is not yet favorable for NGOs,” Yurgens said.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.