Can’t We Just Be Friends? Russian Think Tank Rates Neighbors’ Attitudes Toward Moscow

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ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Russia has something of a preoccupation with unfriendliness these days, so it should come as no surprise that a Kremlin-linked think tank has come up with a way to rank Moscow's neighbors from BFF to archenemies.

But is the ranking of Russia-friendliness among 14 countries that the National Research Institute for the Development of Communications (NIIRK) released earlier this month based on hard data or just hard feelings?

The study -- the Rating of Friendliness of Communication Regimes in Neighboring Countries -- is the second of its kind in the two-year history of NIIRK, which, judging by its modest online footprint, doesn't do much else.

That means these neighboring countries can see how their Russia-friendliness has risen or fallen in the wake of the Kremlin's bloody, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year as well as the NIIRK's recommendations on how to address these trends.

Although there are no surprises regarding the countries at the top (Belarus) and the bottom (Ukraine) of the rankings, some of the other movements in the past year are notable.

Why, for instance, is Georgia, a country Russia went to war with in 2008, now a "relatively friendly" country for Moscow in the view of the authors? And why is Kazakhstan, the leader of last year's rankings, still friendly but "fluctuating"?

Although the NIIRK is both young and little-known, it is "not without connections" according to the Russian media outlet The Moscow Post, which flagged in a February 13 article a cooperation agreement struck on the floor of last summer's annual economic forum in St. Petersburg between NIIRK and one of Russia's national libraries.

The NIIRK also lists a number of state think tanks in Russia and Russian-allied countries among its partners on its website and boasts a supervisory board packed with retired KGB officers.

The group calls its mission "the development of a multilateral dialogue of peoples, cultures, religions, states, international scientific and educational organizations [and] civil society to strengthen peace and harmony."

'Unfriendly' -- A Category With A Sliding Scale

Country relationships and their ebb and flow have been very much on Moscow's mind of late.

In March, as Russia was facing an unprecedented barrage of sanctions in response to its invasion, President Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of an official register of "unfriendly countries" that it has since used as a basis for countersanctions.

The NIIRK claims its research is rooted in an analysis of 10 different types of communications with Russia by its neighbors.

These range from external political communication through "communication in media," "communication in the field of education," and other similarly vague categories as well as neighboring countries' policies toward their Russian-speaking populations.

The think tank says it uses more than 60 indicators to evaluate "communication regimes" in 14 of Russia's neighbors but did not respond to a request from RFE/RL to clarify the methodology.

Summing up changes in Russia-friendliness in 2022 versus 2021, NIIRK said that "the polarization between friendly and unfriendly communication regimes has increased."

If in Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania "conditions for the development of communications worsened, all the way up to a ban," then some communications improved with friendly but "previously quite reserved" Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the NIIRK said.

In numerical terms, the biggest change was in Estonia, where Russia-friendliness reached -51.8 from a prior figure of -10.7 in 2021, as Prime Minister Kaja Kallas emerged as one of Europe's most vocal critics of the Kremlin's invasion. The two countries recently expelled each other's ambassadors to cement the unfriendliness.

Ukraine's rating plunged from -43.8 in 2021 -- when it was rated as more Russia-friendly than Latvia -- to -83.6 in 2022.

Media Meddling

The wide scope of the NIIRK's study chimes with what experts have called the Kremlin's increasingly meddlesome approach to relations with its closer international partners.

Kazakhstan, which failed to follow Belarus's lead in endorsing Russia's war on Ukraine, is perhaps the most obvious example of this trend.

Just last month, an initiative by Kazakh businessmen to send a nomadic yurt as humanitarian aid to Bucha, a town north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, sparked a diplomatic moment between Astana and Moscow. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asked the Kazakh authorities to confirm that Astana was not involved in the delivery "to avoid damaging the Russia-Kazakhstan strategic partnership and alliance."

Zakharova's opposite number in Kazakhstan, Aibek Smadiyarov, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service when asked about the gift that there was "nothing to explain" and that Kazakhstan could not prevent its citizens from helping Ukraine.

In the media space, Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor has been actively targeting outlets in neighboring countries with requests to delete material covering the war that Russia continues to refer to as a "special military operation" or face being blocked in Russia.

For in Kazakhstan, these demands went further, with a court in the Russian town of Vladimir summoning the outlet over its report on the war. The journalists ignored the unprecedented summons and have been backed in doing so by Kazakh officials.

The NIIRK underscored Kazakhstan's status as a friendly country but remarked that "inertia" could no longer be relied on to reproduce positive feelings towards Russia there. "Now efforts will be required, perhaps special projects and programs for the development of communications," the group recommended, without offering details.

Countries with more tightly controlled media and social-media spaces have fared much better in this year's rating.

Turkmenistan all but ignored Russia's war in Ukraine for most of 2022 but has lately dabbled in propaganda campaigns criticizing Western support for Ukraine. Ashgabat was the NIIRK's biggest positive mover, swinging from +14.5 to +47.1 for 2022.

Uzbekistan, where bloggers and media have reportedly been discouraged from covering the war, jumped from seventh to third in the 2022 rankings, leaving Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan trailing in its wake.

Georgia has also trended positive, registering a 20-point hike and leapfrogging Moldova into ninth place as the NIIRK noted improved conditions for "the development of economic communication" in a year when Georgia refused to add to the international sanctions piled on Russia.

Some of the NIIRK's observations -- such as one about alleged censorship of content about Russia in neighboring countries on social media -- appear deeply ironic given the state of freedoms at home.

The group likewise expresses dismay that religious institutions "which in 2021 remained channels of friendly communication even in unfriendly countries, are being pressured by the authorities and forced to make a political choice." In Russia, a Russian Orthodox Church priest was fined and the supreme lama of Russia's predominantly Buddhist Kalmykia region designated a "foreign agent" over their comments and stances related to the war.

The composition of the NIIRK's supervisory board might raise questions about the "rating of friendliness" as a serious academic exercise -- fully five of seven members include careers in the Russian and Soviet security services on their resumes.

Among them is NIIRK Director Vladislav Gasumyanov, who described the rating as "a benchmark, both for Russia and for other countries" in a blog post published last week.

Russia's neighbors, he said, had benefited from Russia's historically "paternalistic relations," which he contrasted with the "colonial relations" favored by Europe and the United States.

Now, they have "an opportunity for thought, to decide on their priorities and align their watches. Time cannot be turned back," Gasumyanov warned.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.